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With two sentences, Boris Johnson has undone months of hard work

Campaigners had hoped to bring Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe home for Christmas. 

Nobody is laughing anymore.

In fact, many people have been tired of Boris Johnson for a while. His antics and incompetence while Mayor of London and now more errors as the highest diplomatic office holder in the UK are no longer acceptable.

His blunder over North London citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has now put a mother and wife’s freedom in danger.

Having been arrested at Imam Khomeini International Airport following a trip to visit her parents, Nazanin has been detained since 3 April 2016. Transferred to an unknown location in Kerman Province, 1,000 kilometers south of Tehran, she was interrogated and held in solitary confinement for 46 days.

Her health is already deteriorating, with Amnesty International stating: “Prison is taking its toll on Nazanin. She suffers from severe arm, neck and back pain and needs urgent specialised medical care in hospital. In recent months, she has had very limited movement in her arms. The specialist who requested her hospitalisation warned that there is a risk that her right arm and hand will be permanently damaged if she doesn’t get the medical care she needs.”

She is now held by the Revolutionary Guard in Evin prison in Tehran, having suffered human rights abuses and been kept from her daughter. Sentenced to five years imprisonment for a fictitious crime, Nazanin and her family were already angry.

But as of Saturday, Nazanin’s freedom was put in further jeopardy when she was taken to an unscheduled court hearing in Tehran on charges of “propaganda against the regime” with the threat of five more years in prison.

This is thanks to an error of grave proportions by our Foreign Secretary, who stated when questioned by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Nazanin had been in Iran to “teach people journalism”.

Of course, Iran’s assertion that this is true or the conclusion that this meant Nazanin was scheming to bring down the Iranian regime is fantastical. And their human rights violations should be called out as grossly unacceptable.

But our Foreign Secretary and government can take some credit for this devastating situation. A Foreign Secretary endangering the citizens he is meant to protect, while we have an International Trade Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, who has told the BBC that this is not “a serious gaffe”.

We had hoped to get Nazanin home for Christmas, which now looks infinitely less likely. But, perhaps it’s not that “serious”.

Mr. Johnson is happy to put his name out there on articles, de-rail his boss’s Brexit strategy and enjoys his celebrity diplomat status. But as a man who wants to project himself, he should be aware that his words are unfortunately listened to.

To make such a momentous mistake is unforgivable. As Foreign Secretary, our public and international observers rightly expect an air of experience. As our government, we expect a duty of care and the security of our country’s people as the foremost task. Mr Johnson has failed in both.

I welcome Johnson’s clarification in the House of Commons today and welcome his telephone call to his Iranian counterpart. But he has failed to say two simple words: “I’m sorry.” We can only hope that no lasting damage has been done to Nazanin.

And what now do international observers expect of our foreign policy? Is our highest diplomat to be trusted on such an important stage? Why is Boris Johnson not in command of the facts of such a critical case?

Indeed, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP is well briefed on Nazanin’s case. Yet, he has in the matter of two sentences repeated the narrative of the Iranian government, undone the tireless work of Nazanin’s family and put her at further risk.

Even Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Foreign Secretary, has said that Johnson needed to get better at reading his briefs and sticking to the detail. It should be obvious that as Foreign Secretary words should be chosen carefully.

Nazanin’s case has been brought up time and time again to the government. Instead of a series of weak and flimsy responses, the Foreign Secretary should have already been making the firmest possible representations to his Iranian counterparts.

There is some hope this is forthcoming, given, in response, Johnson has announced he will visit Iran before the end of the year; after months and months and months of our government doing nothing to help a British national, they may be finally standing up for Nazanin.

It is a shame it has taken the risk of five more years in a notorious jail cell for the Foreign Secretary to think about doing his job.


Photo: Getty
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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.