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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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.