James Foley photographed in Aleppo in 2012. Photo by Mano Brabo
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ISIS video appears to show killing of US Journalist James Foley

Late last night, the militant jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) released a video purporting to show the beheading of James Foley, a US journalist who went missing in Syria in 2012. Foley was a fearless, generous and committed reporter, who had also been detained while reporting in Libya. 

Late last night, the militant jihadist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) released a video purporting to show the beheading of James Foley, a US journalist who went missing in Syria in 2012. In the video he was wearing an orange jumpsuit, and was forced to read a statement blaming the US for his death, before he was executed. The group threatened the death of a further journalist, Steven Joel Sotloff, who they claim is in their hands.

YouTube took the video down late last night, and it is still being verified. I should mention that I could not bring myself to watch it, although I knew I would write about it, because I knew whatever I saw I would never, ever be able to unsee. Which is relevant, because while media outlets often protect their readers from the most gruesome, unforgettable images of war, if you’re a war reporter you confront them every day, in the hope of translating this horror to your readers and giving those caught up in conflict a voice. I could never do the same job as Foley or Sotloff, and my gratitude and respect for them is unending.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 69 reporters have been killed in Syria and 80 kidnapped. Twenty are still in captivity, many of whom are believed to be held by IS. Foley entered Syria knowing the risks: he had been kidnapped once in Libya in 2011. “Captivity is the state most violently opposed to his nature,” his friend, fellow captive and reporter Clare Morgana Gillis wrote. She described his generosity, he had been fundraising for a friend, Anton Hammerl, killed in Libya before his own capture, “If he had a sandwich, he’d offer me half; if down to one cigarette, he’d pass it back and forth. He saved my life twice before I’d known him a full month,” she wrote. In an interview on his release, Foley had spoken of his trauma at Hammerl's death and sense of responsibility for Hammerl's children, but he also reconfirmed his passion for journalism. "I'm trying to expose untold stories," he told the BBC, "but I'm also drawn to the human rights side."

Another piece of sad news is that this may not be the only time IS uses this brutal propaganda technique. They know executions will rightly provoke outrage (though ISIS is unlikely to find it effective as a bargaining tool), and the principles that motivate journalists like Foley are the complete antithesis to ISIS's ideology: their narrow, unforgiving, inhumane interpretation of Islam, the ease with which they sacrifice human life to their political ends, their black-and-white view that divides the world into believers and infidels, righteous and evil. Honest, brave, humanitarian reporting is the enemy of dictators, hypocrites and religious zealots, which is why even if you had never met or heard of James Foley you should view this as a tragedy. 

On Twitter last night, people began trying, in their own small way, to re-write ISIS’s narrative. Rather than share pictures of Foley in his jumpsuit, remember him as he would want to be remembered, doing a job he approached with passion, dedication and fearlessness. You can view some photos of him working here. His mother, Diane, released this statement: “We have never been prouder of our son Jim. He gave his life trying to expose the world to the suffering of the Syrian people.” The website dedicated to his release, Findjamesfoley.org appeared to crash several times this morning due to the weight of traffic.

The internet has changed the way in which people publicly share and express their grief. At a time when too many journalists are dying in conflict (30 have died already this year), a modern expression of solidarity might be to declare that “we are all James Foley”, but we are not. The fearlessness and commitment Foley demonstrated are rare qualities, but these qualities remain a source of hope for those caught in conflicts around the world.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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