Category Archives: UK Hypocrisy

The Dead And Those About To Die: Climate Protests And The Corporate Media

The Roman poet Horace famously declared:

Dulce et decorum est pro patrie mori.

It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. Wilfred Owen, the great English poet of the First World War, described this phrase as ‘the old Lie’ in his famous war poem, ‘Dulce et decorum est’. Patriotism so often means ‘honouring’ those who ‘fell in service to this country’, grand ceremonies at war memorials, feasts of royal pageantry. And then sending yet more generations of men and women to fight in yet more wars.

On Remembrance Day (11 November) last week, much of the ‘mainstream’ media queued up to condemn two Extinction Rebellion climate protesters who had ‘hijacked’ the Cenotaph, the famous war memorial in Whitehall, London. At 8am that day, after undertaking a two-minute silence, former soldier Donald Bell (64) and NHS nurse Anne White (53) hung a wreath on the Cenotaph with the inscription, ‘Climate change means war: Act now’. Together with two other unnamed climate protesters, they also unveiled a large black and white banner saying:

Honour Their Sacrifice, Climate Change Means War

Within half an hour, the Metropolitan Police had cleared away the protest.

The Daily Mail’s headline screamed, ‘Fury at climate fanatics’ hijacking of Cenotaph’ 1, while its columnist Robert Hardman declared that the climate action was ‘a monumentally inappropriate protest’. The Mail, Sun and other papers gave prominence to Boris Johnson’s condemnation of the ‘profoundly disrespectful’ protesters.

The Daily Express declared that the action was ‘a disgrace to the fallen’ 2 The editorial fulminated that the:

activists who staged a demonstration at the Cenotaph yesterday craved publicity but disgusted the country. Only extremists devoid of a scintilla of sensitivity would consider staging such a stunt on Armistice Day… The Cenotaph must be protected from the antics of cranks and those who would want to inflict damage at this sacred site.

Express columnist Paul Baldwin, likewise in full splenetic mode, opined that the Cenotaph had been ‘desecrated’ and ‘those virtue-signalling gutless wonders at Extinction Rebellion’ had ‘no shame’.

The Daily Star asserted in an editorial titled, ‘Eco demo a disgrace’ 3 :

These moronic crusties have continually shown a complete lack of respect for the general public. Whether it’s interfering with everyday lives or generally being a nuisance, they are not making their point in the right way. But these hippy-dippy, airy-fairy prats have really crossed a line now.

The editorial continued:

They marred yesterday’s Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph with some shameful antics. Eco-warriors – including a disgracefully disrespectful veteran – trampled over poppy wreaths.

In fact, footage published by newspapers themselves shows that former soldier Donald Bell carefully avoided stepping on wreaths.

The Daily Star continued:

Their behaviour was disgustingly beyond the pale. This vital annual moment of solemnness and reflection must never be disrupted to make political points. And it will only set them back in achieving their aims. Nothing should ever get in the way of honouring our fallen heroes.

For the Sun, the protest was ‘a new low’ and:

Extinction Rebellion should hang their heads in shame and disband after abusing the Cenotaph.

The i newspaper ran with the headline:

Climate protest at Cenotaph condemned for “bad taste”

and its report led with:

Climate change protest group Extinction Rebellion drew condemnation from across the political spectrum yesterday after it staged a demonstration at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day. 4

Note the emphasis throughout press coverage on ‘condemnation’. Was there no support to quote from anywhere ‘across the political spectrum’, or did the national press just ignore it? Either way, consider what that means about a supposed broad range of views in what passes for political debate in the British media.

The response from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer indicated, once again, that he is no threat to the established order:

No one can doubt how serious the climate emergency is, but the protests at the Cenotaph are wrong. They are in bad taste. We do not support them.

As one astute observer noted via Twitter:

Starmer wouldn’t have supported the Tolpuddle Martyrs, suffragette movement, the bus boycott & Stonewall et al except retrospectively when sanitised by history & his overleaping ambitions

BBC News gave a brief mention to the Extinction Rebellion protest towards the bottom of its online report on Remembrance Day commemorations. The Guardian went one step further by relegating its account of the protest to a single line, buried deep in its coverage of Remembrance Day.

More was to come. True to form, the Daily Mail followed up its initial coverage by dredging up dirt on former soldier Donald Bell. Its headline shouted:

EXCLUSIVE – Revealed: Ex-soldier who sparked fury with Cenotaph Extinction Rebellion protest is DRUG DEALER jailed for selling heroin – and was accused of abusing his disabled wife.

The article boasted:

MailOnline can reveal he was jailed for four years in 2007 after being caught pushing his wheelchair-bound wife around the streets of Cambridge – while peddling heroin at the same time.

Buried at the bottom of the Mail’s gutter ‘journalism’, was a short extract from a statement by Extinction Rebellion:

Donald Bell left the army with serious Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a time when the illness was still not fully recognised.

Donald was one of those people who, like so many, made mistakes and then worked hard to turn his life around.

Extinction Rebellion stands by him and his right to speak out about the Government’s complicity in knowingly taking us into future wars and a 4 degree world.

In its full statement published on its website, Extinction Rebellion noted:

Right now, what we’re seeing is papers like the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Express encouraging vitriol and abuse towards a veteran, a man who served his country, when PTSD, homelessness, addiction and alcoholism are the reality for thousands of people who have left the armed forces.

If national newspapers were truly motivated to ‘honour the fallen’, they would be challenging the government repeatedly to uphold its supposed moral commitments to look after former armed forces personnel, many of whom suffer from physical injuries and mental health issues.

Indeed, if the major news media were the responsible fourth estate they claim to be, they would scrutinise government foreign policy, not least statements of benign intent about ‘defending’ freedom and democracy around the world. The media would hold politicians to account for the mass deaths of civilians in the wars and ‘humanitarian interventions’ in which the UK has participated. This would be a fitting memorial to peace, rather than the endless succession of annual ceremonies that politicians and media purport as ‘honouring’ the dead.

As Mail on Sunday journalist, Peter Hitchens, whose courageous work in exposing the official narrative on a supposed chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria, commented recently:

In recent years a very strange thing has happened to my trade. More and more journalists seem happy to be the mouthpieces of government, or of political parties. Worse, they attack other journalists for refusing to fall into step with the official line.

Hitchens added:

If such ideas had been around in the days of Watergate, Richard Nixon would have served two full terms as President and retired with honour.

If it had been so in 2003, you wouldn’t know, even now, that Saddam Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction.

Moreover, a truly ‘mainstream’ media – pursuing genuine public-interest journalism – would be exposing the utter failure of successive governments to seriously address climate breakdown. The media would hail as heroes those climate activists who are protesting peacefully to draw attention to the very real risk of climate catastrophe, global mass loss of species and of human extinction itself.

Instead, the level of media debate is often shockingly poor. On ITV’s ‘This Morning’ last Thursday, the right-winger Andrew Neil, until recently masquerading as an ‘impartial’ BBC politics presenter, lambasted Extinction Rebellion, dismissing the warning that climate change will lead to wars. ‘There’s no evidence of that’, he declared.

This was an outrageous untruth. In fact, as Extinction Rebellion (XR) correctly point out, the UK Ministry of Defence itself warned in a June 2020 report of the:

growing recognition that climate change may aggravate existing threats to international peace and security’ and that society should prepare for between 2.3 – 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100. As XR said, this would bring ‘unimaginable suffering’.

In other words, the MoD has provided powerful evidence precisely justifying the kind of protest, the kind of expression of free speech, that is absolutely vital if we are to save millions, perhaps billions of lives. Is not the best way of honouring the dead to honour and protect the living, to do whatever we can to avoid yet more unnecessary war deaths in future?

And it’s not just the MoD pointing to the link between global warming and war. The US Pentagon has warned of this for at least two decades. As news agency Bloomberg noted in January 2019, the most comprehensive study to investigate the link between climate change, war and refugee flows concluded:

Pentagon Fears Confirmed: Climate Change Leads to More Wars and Refugees

Later the same year, a report prepared by officials from the US Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, NASA and other agencies, warned of a more dangerous world under global warming. The effects would include increased electricity blackouts, starvation, thirst, disease and war over the next two decades. The US military itself may even be at risk of collapse within two decades.

Michael Klare, author of a new book titled All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change, summed up in a recent interview:

What happens when you have states collapsing, multiple wars happening in the Middle East and Africa and South America, and many hurricanes and disasters in the United States all at the same time? The US military doesn’t have enough troops or resources to both defend the United States and to address all of these foreign catastrophes. That’s what I call an all-hell-breaking-loose scenario, and the Pentagon knows very well that US forces aren’t prepared or capable to deal with it.

Of course, from the selfish vantage point of imperial power, the US armed forces and the political and security establishment, are primarily motivated to maintain US hegemony in a warming world in which many of their military bases around the globe are threatened by rising sea levels and increased incidence and severity of storms; as well as the ‘threats’ that other countries or ‘terrorist’ groups may pose in trying to take advantage of climate change.

Indeed, the Pentagon has long viewed climate change as a ‘destabilising force‘ and a ‘threat multiplier‘ – increasing the risk of war in the Middle East, Africa and around the globe as food, water and other resources diminish. As long ago as 2004, a previously secret Pentagon report prepared by strategic planners warned of climate wars being waged around the world. There could even be conflict in new areas, notably in the melting Arctic with oil resources and trade routes being fought over in the region.

For Andrew Neil, a high-profile commentator who for 25 years has enjoyed a privileged BBC platform, to dismiss serious concerns about climate wars is yet another symptom of the abysmal state of climate debate in UK national media.

Climate Agreements Are ‘Greenwash’, ‘Fake’, ‘Fraud’

In previous media alerts on climate, we have elucidated the severe threats to climate stability, civilisation and even human existence posed by the madness of corporate-driven globalisation and the imperialistic grasping at diminishing resources. Rather than once again reprising a list of these threats, and the underlying destructive nature of capitalism that is fuelling these threats, consider a recent pledge demonstrating what should be the obvious, honest responsibility of scientists.

‘Science has no higher purpose than to understand and help maintain the conditions for life to thrive on Earth’, is a core statement in a recently published ‘science oath for climate’. Climate scientists Chris Rapley, Sarah Bracking, Bill McGuire, Simon Lewis and Jonathan Bamber have invited others in the scientific community to join their initiative to prevent catastrophic climate disruption. Among their stated pledges is a commitment not to be hindered or intimidated by any sense of:

what might seem politically or economically pragmatic when describing the scale and timeframe of action needed to deliver the 1.5C and 2C commitments, specified in the Paris climate agreement. And to speak out about what is not compatible with the commitments, or is likely to undermine them.

This is especially relevant right now when the ‘MSM’ is selling the idea of President-elect Joe Biden as a harbinger of hope for the climate. The Guardian wrote approvingly of his supposed ‘climate bet’, namely: ‘putting jobs first will bring historic change’. Biden has pledged:

to clean up electricity by 2035 and spend $2tn on clean energy as quickly as possible within four years.

While conceding a cautious note about Biden’s reluctance ‘to be tougher on the fossil fuel industry’, the Guardian declared that his plan was ‘significant and historic’ and it ‘would be just the beginning of a brutal slog to transform the way the nation operates’.

The paper even published a 16-page ‘souvenir supplement’, heralding Biden’s presidency as a ‘new start‘; in much the same way as the Guardian and the rest of the corporate media welcomed Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House in 2008. Obama, of course, then went on to bomb seven Muslim-majority countries, paid lip service to the reduction of nuclear weapons (after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009), shared complicity in Saudia Arabia’s terror campaign against Yemen, as well as in Israel’s crushing of Palestinian human rights, and continued to subsidise the planet-wrecking fossil fuel sector.

We were told back then that Obama would ‘wipe the slate clean’. A ‘new dawn’ was declared. We would ‘learn to love America’ again. In reality, it was all about relaunching ‘Brand America’, so that US imperialism could continue unimpeded. Why should it be any different today, given the way the US system selects for corporate-friendly candidates?

It certainly won’t be. As Kevin Gosztola explained in an article for The Grayzone website:

An eye-popping array of corporate consultants, war profiteers, and national security hawks have been appointed by President-elect Joe Biden to agency review teams that will set the agenda for his administration. A substantial percentage of them worked in the United States government when Barack Obama was president. The appointments should provide a rude awakening to anyone who believed a Biden administration could be pressured to move in a progressive direction…

Of the two presidential ‘choices’ delivered by a corrupt, corporate-financed US electoral system of ‘democracy’, Biden was the lesser evil compared to Trump, the latter described by Noam Chomsky as ‘the worst criminal in human history’ for the threat he represented to climate stability:

There is nothing like this in history. It’s not breaking with the American tradition. Can you think of anyone in human history who has dedicated his efforts to undermining the prospects for survival of organized human life on earth?

But be under no illusion that Biden, representing and backed by powerful corporate and financial elites, and with a sordid record of supporting US crimes around the world, represents any kind of significant departure from business-as-usual for US power.

This grim reality has been ignored or overlooked in the overwhelmingly meek, hopelessly Panglossian reactions of the ‘policy experts’ and climate scientists canvassed by website Carbon Brief in the wake of the US election. Understandable to some extent, there was widespread welcoming of the prospect of the US rejoining the Paris climate agreement which Trump had infamously rejected.

Dr Rachel Cleetus, of the US-based Union for Concerned Scientists, told Carbon Brief:

President-elect Joe Biden and vice-president elect Kamala Harris’ victory marks a new day in the fight for bold, just and equitable climate policy in the US.

Dr Maisa Rojas Corradi, Director of the Centre for Climate and Resilience Research, University of Chile, said:

Biden’s victory will give a tremendous momentum to climate action, a momentum that was building up after the giant Asian countries announced carbon-neutrality compromises recently. This means that in this crucial decade we will be able to tackle the climate crisis seriously.

Dr Niklas Höhne and Dr Bill Hare, who run the Climate Action Tracker initiative, declared:

If president-elect Joe Biden goes ahead with his net-zero emissions pledge by 2050 for the US, this could shave 0.1C off global warming by 2100.

The madness of having to be grateful for the feeble hope of ‘shaving off’ 0.1C of catastrophic heating needs no comment.

One climate expert conspicuously missing from the list of over twenty experts consulted was Dr James Hansen, the pioneering climate scientist who famously warned the US Congress in 1988 of the dangers of global warming. Hansen’s honesty about the politics of climate is legendary. In 2009, we asked him how much had been achieved in the decades since he and others scientists had raised the climate alarm. In particular, we asked him to estimate the percentage of required action to address the climate crisis had actually been implemented by governments. His blunt answer? Precisely zero per cent.5  Since then, carbon emissions, consumption and temperatures have continued to soar.

In 2015, Hansen was scathing about the Paris climate agreement:

It’s a fraud really, a fake. It’s just bullshit for them to say: “We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.” It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.

In 2017, during the climate talks in Bonn, Hansen described the supposed political ambition of world leaders on climate as a ‘hoax’. He said:

As yet, these politicians are working more for the fossil fuel industry than they are for the public, in my opinion.

These are the kind of direct, honest and accurate statements that climate scientists should be making. Politicians need to be confronted with their chronic lack of action to tackle today’s – not tomorrow’s – climate emergency. Scientists should be explicit in declaring that the fossil fuel era needs to end.

Climate campaigner Greta Thunberg is right to call political leaders ‘hypocrites’ and to denounce them for delivering no more than empty words and greenwash at international climate summits. She said that leaders were happy to set targets for carbon emissions decades into the future. But when immediate cuts were demanded, they flinched. When asked if there was any politician anywhere promising the climate action required, she said, ‘If only’.

She added:

As long as we don’t treat the climate crisis like a crisis, we can have as many conferences as we want, but it will just be negotiations, empty words, loopholes and greenwash.

Pledges by the UK, China, Japan and other nations – including the US under Biden – to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or 2060 are largely meaningless, she believes:

They mean something symbolically, but if you look at what they actually include, or more importantly exclude, there are so many loopholes. We shouldn’t be focusing on dates 10, 20 or even 30 years in the future. If we don’t reduce our emissions now, then those distant targets won’t mean anything because our carbon budgets will be long gone.

Thunberg says that there is not a single political leader on the world stage who ‘gets it’ on climate. When asked about what she has learned from meeting people in power, she has some interesting and astute observations:

I’ve spoken to many world leaders, and sometimes I wish I had a hidden camera. People wouldn’t believe what they say. It’s very funny. They say: “I can’t do anything because I don’t have the support. You need to help me.” They become desperate. It’s like they are begging for me to help them persuade the public that we need climate action. What that tells me is people are underestimating their power and the power of democracy and of putting pressure on people in power.

There is hope in that message. We, the public, have strength in numbers. Politicians are not necessarily forced to do the bidding of corporate, financial and military elites. They can be made to do the will of the people. Or, if not, they need to be replaced by politicians who do represent public interests and public power. When it comes to human civilisation – human survival even – it is imperative that we exert that power.

  1. Print Edition, 12 November, p. 13.
  2. Print Edition, 12 November, p. 11.
  3. Print Edition, 12 November, p. 6.
  4. Print Edition, 12 November, p. 5.
  5. Email, Hansen to Media Lens, June 18, 2009.

The post The Dead And Those About To Die: Climate Protests And The Corporate Media first appeared on Dissident Voice.

It is the Equalities Commission, not Labour, carrying out Political Interference

I recently published in Middle East Eye a long analysis of last week’s report by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission into the question of whether the UK Labour party had an especial antisemitism problem. (You can read a slightly fuller version of that article on my website.) In the piece, I reached two main conclusions.

First, the commission’s headline verdict – though you would never know it from reading the media’s coverage – was that no case was found that Labour suffered from “institutional antisemitism”.

That, however, was precisely the claim that had been made by groups like the Jewish Labour Movement, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, the Board of Deputies and prominent rabbis such as Ephraim Mirvis. Their claims were amplified by Jewish media outlets such as the Jewish Chronicle and individual journalists such as Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian. All are now shown to have been wrong, to have maligned the Labour party and to have irresponsibly inflamed the concerns of Britain’s wider Jewish community.

Not that any of these organisations or individuals will have to apologise. The corporate media – from the Mail to the Guardian – are continuing to mislead and misdirect on this issue, as they have been doing for the best part of five years. Neither Jewish leadership groups such as the Board of Deputies nor the corporate media have an interest in highlighting the embarrassing fact that the commission’s findings exposed their campaign against Corbyn as misinformation.

Breaches of procedure

What the report found instead were mainly breaches of party protocol and procedure: that complaints about antisemitism were not handled promptly and transparently.

But even here the issue was not really about antisemitism, as the report indicates, even if obliquely. Delays in resolving complaints were chiefly the responsibility not of Corbyn and his staff but of a party bureaucracy that he inherited and was deeply and explicitly hostile to him.

Senior officials stalled antisemitism complaints not because they were especially antisemitic but because they knew the delays would embarrass Corbyn and weaken him inside the party, as the leaked report of an Labour internal inquiry revealed in the spring.

But again, neither the media nor Jewish leadership groups have any interest in exposing their own culpability in this false narrative. And the new Labour leadership, under Keir Starmer, has absolutely no incentive to challenge this narrative either, particularly as doing so would be certain to revive exactly the same kind of antisemitism smears, but this time directed against Starmer himself.

Too hasty and aggressive

The corporate media long ago styled Labour staff who delayed the complaints procedure to harm Corbyn as antisemitism “whistleblowers”. Many of them starred in last year’s BBC Panorama programme on Labour in which they claimed they had been hampered from carrying out their work.

The equalities commission’s report subtly contradicts their claims, conceding that progress on handling complaints improved after senior Labour staff hostile to Corbyn – the “whistleblowers” very much among them – were removed from their posts.

Indeed, the report suggests the very opposite of the established media narrative. Corbyn’s team, far from permitting or encouraging delays in resolving antisemitism complaints, too often tried to step in to speed up the process to placate the corporate media and Jewish organisations.

In an example of having your cake and eating it, the commission castigates Corbyn’s staff for doing this, labelling it “political interference” and terming these actions unfair and discriminatory. But the unfairness chiefly relates to those being complained against – those accused of antisemitism – not those doing the complaining.

If Labour had an identifiable problem in relation to antisemitism complaints, according to the report, it seems to have occurred mostly in terms of the party being too hasty and aggressive in tackling antisemitism, in response to relentless criticism from the media and Jewish organisations, rather than being indulgent of it.

Again, no one in the media, Jewish leadership organisations, or the new Labour leadership wants this finding to be highlighted. So it is being ignored.

Flawed approach

The second conclusion, which I lacked the space to deal with properly in my Middle East Eye piece, relates more specifically to the commission’s own flawed approach in compiling the report rather than the media’s misrepresentation of the report.

As I explained in my earlier piece, the commission itself is very much an establishment body. Even had it wanted to, which it most certainly did not, it was never going to stick its neck out and rubbish the narrative presented by the establishment media.

On procedural matters, such as how the party handled antisemitism complaints, the equalities commission kept the report as vague as possible, obfuscating who was responsible for those failings and who was supposed to benefit from Corbyn staff’s interference. Both issues had the potential to fatally undermine the established media narrative.

Instead, the commission’s imprecision has allowed the media and Jewish organisations to interpret the report in self-serving ways – ways convenient to their existing narrative about “institutional antisemitism” in Labour.

Scouring social media

But the report misleads not only in its evasion and ambiguity. It does so more overtly in its seemingly desperate effort to find examples of Labour party “agents” who were responsible for the “problem” of antisemitism.

It is worth pondering what it would have looked like had the commission admitted it was unable to find anyone to hold to account for antisemitism in Labour. That would have risked blowing a very large hole in the established media narrative indeed.

So there must have been a great deal of pressure on the commission to find some examples. But extraordinarily – after five years of relentless claims of “institutional antisemitism” in Labour, and of organisations like the Campaign Against Antisemitism and the Jewish Labour Movement scouring through Labour members’ social media accounts – the commission is able to muster sufficient evidence against only two individuals.

Two!

Both are found responsible for “illegal harassment” of Jewish people.

In those circumstances, therefore, it is important to critically examine just what evidence exists that these two individuals exhibited antisemitic attitudes or harassed Jews. Presumably, this pair’s behaviour was so egregious, their antisemitism so unmistakable, that the commission felt it had no choice but to single them out and hold the party responsible for failing to punish them summarily (without, of course, exhibiting at the same time any “political interference”).

I won’t test readers’ patience by examining both examples. In any case, I have dealt with one of them, Ken Livingstone, London’s former mayor, at length in previous blog posts. They can be read here and here, for example.

Outward appearances

Let us focus instead on the other person named: a minor Labour party figure named Pam Bromley, who was then a local councillor for the borough of Rossendale, near Bolton.

First, we should note that the “harassment” she was deemed to have carried out seems to have been limited to online comments posted to social media. The commission does not suggest she expressed any hatred of Jews, made threats against any Jews individually or collectively, or physically attacked anyone Jewish.

I don’t know anything about Bromley, apart from the handful of comments attributed to her in the report. I also don’t know what was going on inside her head when she wrote those posts. If the commission knows more, it does not care to share that information with us. We can only judge the outward appearance of what she says.

One social media post, it is true, does suggest a simplistic political outlook that may have indicated an openness to anti-Jewish conspiracy theories – or what the commission terms a “trope”. Bromley herself says she was making “general criticisms about capitalism”. Determining antisemitic conduct on the basis of that one post – let alone allowing an entire party of 500,000 members to be labelled “institutionally antisemitic” for it – might seem more than a little excessive.

But notably the problematic post was made in April 2018 – shortly after Corbyn’s staff wrestled back control of the complaints procedure from those hostile to his project. It was also the same month Bromley was suspended from the party. So if the post was indeed antisemitic, Corbyn’s Labour lost no time in dealing with it.

Did Bromley otherwise demonstrate a pattern of posting antisemitic material on social media that makes it hard to dispute that she harboured antisemitic motives? Were her comments so obviously antisemitic that the Labour party bureaucracy should have sanctioned her much sooner (even if at the time Corbyn’s staff had no control over the disciplinary process to do so)?

Let us examine the two comments highlighted by the commission in the main section of the report, which they deem to constitute the most clear-cut examples of Bromley’s antisemitism.

Raw emotions

The first was posted on Facebook, though strangely the commission appears not to know when:

Had Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party pulled up the drawbridge and nipped the bogus AS [antisemitism] accusations in the bud in the first place we would not be where we are now and the fifth column in the LP [Labour Party] would not have managed to get such a foothold … the Lobby has miscalculated … The witch hunt has created brand new fightback networks … The Lobby will then melt back into its own cesspit.

The strong language doubtless reflects the raw emotions the antisemitism claims against Corbyn’s supporters provoked. Many members understood only too well that the Labour party was riven by a civil war and that their socialist project was at stake. But where exactly is the antisemitism in Bromley’s tirade?

In the report, the commission says it considered the reference to a “fifth column” as code for Jews. But why? The equalities commission appears to have placed the worst possible interpretation on an ambiguous comment and then advanced it as an “antisemitic trope” – apparently a catch-all that needed no clarification.

But given what we now know – at least since the leaking of the internal Labour report in the spring – it seems far more likely Bromley, in referring to a “fifth column”, was talking about the party bureaucracy hostile to Corbyn. Most of those officials were not Jewish, but exploited the antisemitism claims because those claims were politically helpful.

Interpreted that way – and such an interpretation fits the facts presented in the leaked internal report – Bromley’s comment is better viewed as impolite, even hurtful, but probably not antisemitic.

Joan Ryan, an MP who was then head of Labour Friends of Israel – part of the lobby Bromley is presumably referring to – was not Jewish. But she was clearly very much part of the campaign to oust Corbyn using antisemitism as a stick to beat him and his supporters with, as an Al-Jazeera undercover documentary exposed in early 2017.

Ryan, we should remember, was instrumental in falsely accusing a Labour party member of an “antisemitic trope” – a deception that was only exposed because the exchange was secretly caught on film.

Internecine feud

Here is the second comment by Bromley highlighted by the commission. It was posted in late 2019, shortly after Labour had lost the general election:

My major criticism of him [Corbyn] – his failure to repel the fake accusations of antisemitism in the LP [Labour Party] – may not be repeated as the accusations may probably now magically disappear, now capitalism has got what it wanted.

Again, it seems clear that Bromley is referring to the party’s long-standing internecine feud, which would become public knowledge a few months later with the leaking of the internal report.

Here Bromley was suggesting that the media and anti-Corbyn wing of the party would ease up on the antisemitism allegations – as they indeed largely have done – because the threat of Corbyn’s socialist project had been ended by a dismal election result that saw the Tories gain a commanding parliamentary majority.

It could be argued that her assessment is wrong, but how is it antisemitic – unless the commission believes “capitalism” is also code for “Jews”?

But even if Bromley’s comments are treated as indisputably antisemitic, they are hardly evidence of Corbyn’s Labour party indulging antisemitism, or being “institutionally antisemitic”. As noted, she was suspended by the party in April 2018, almost as soon Corbyn’s team managed to gain control of the party bureaucracy from the old guard. She was expelled last February, while Corbyn was still leader.

Boris Johnson’s racism

It is instructive to compare the certainty with which the commission treats Bromley’s ambiguous remarks as irrefutable proof of antisemitism with its complete disregard for unmistakably antisemitic comments from Boris Johnson, the man actually running the country. That lack of concern is shared, of course, by the establishment media and Jewish leadership organisations.

The commission has repeatedly rejected parallel demands from Muslim groups for an investigation into the ruling Conservative party for well-documented examples of Islamophobia. But no one seems to be calling for an investigation of Johnson’s party for antisemitism.

Johnson himself has a long history of making overtly racist remarks, from calling black people “piccanninies” with “watermelon smiles” to labelling Muslim women “letterboxes”.

Jews have not avoided being stigmatised either. In his novel 72 Virgins, Johnson uses his authorial voice to suggest that Jewish oligarchs run the media and are able to fix an election result.

In a letter to the Guardian, a group of Jewish Corbyn supporters noted Johnson’s main Jewish character in the novel, Sammy Katz, was described as having a “proud nose and curly hair”, and he was painted “as a malevolent, stingy, snake-like Jewish businessman who exploits immigrant workers for profit”.

Nothing in the equalities commission’s report on Labour comes even close to suggesting this level of antisemitism. But then again, Johnson has never argued that antisemitism has been politically weaponised. And why would he? No one, from the corporate media to conservative Jewish leadership organisations, seems to be taking any serious interest in the overt racism demonstrated by either him or his party.

The post It is the Equalities Commission, not Labour, carrying out Political Interference first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Corbyn was Never Going to get a Fair Hearing in the EHRC Antisemitism Report

• This is the full version of an article published in edited form by Middle East Eye

It was easy to miss the true significance of last week’s Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report on the British Labour Party and antisemitism amid the furore over the party suspending its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The impression left on the public – aided by yet more frantic media spin – was that the EHRC’s 130-page report had confirmed the claims of Corbyn’s critics that on his watch the party had become “institutionally antisemitic”. In fact, the watchdog body reached no such conclusion. Its report was far more ambiguous. And its findings – deeply flawed, vague and glaringly inconsistent as they were – were nowhere near as dramatic as the headlines suggested.

The commission concluded that “there were unlawful acts of harassment and discrimination for which the Labour Party is responsible”. Those failings, according to the commission, related to the handling of antisemitism complaints, interference by the leader’s office in the disciplinary procedure, and “unlawful harassment” by two Labour Party “agents”.

None of that seemed to amount to anything like the supposed claims of a “plague” and “tidal wave” of antisemitism that have dominated headlines for five years.

Missing the point

Paradoxically, the equalities commission’s conclusions sounded a lot like Corbyn’s statement that the scale of Labour’s antisemitism problem had been “dramatically overstated”. That remark quickly became grounds for the party suspending him.

So sustained has the furore about “institutional antisemitism” been in Labour that, according to a recent survey by academics Greg Philo and Mike Berry, the British public estimated that on average a third of Labour members had been disciplined for antisemitism – more than 300 times the real figure.

But in the end, the commission could identify only two cases of unlawful antisemitism the party was responsible for. According to the report, there were 18 “borderline” cases, however, “there was not enough evidence to conclude that the Labour Party was legally responsible for the conduct of the individual”.

Nonetheless, in a comment published approvingly by the Guardian newspaper at the weekend, the commission’s executive director, Alastair Pringle, stated that the figures involved were irrelevant. “‘Was it 3% or 30% or 0.3%’ misses the point,” he said. In response to questions from MEE, the EHRC stated that the investigation “sought to determine whether the Labour Party committed a breach of the Equality Act related to Jewish ethnicity or Judaism, to look at what steps the Party had taken to implement the recommendations of previous reports, and to assess whether the party had handled antisemitism complaints lawfully, efficiently and effectively.”

The commission, however, confirmed Pringle’s observation that the investigation “did not focus on an assessment of the scale of antisemitism in the Party”. Members of the commission, it seems, were quite happy to acquiesce in the impression that Labour was riddled with antisemitism, however marginal they discovered the phenomenon to be in practice.

Complaints stalled

Notably, the EHRC avoided attributing responsibility to any named individuals for the party’s failings in handling antisemitism complaints – the most serious charge it levelled. That decision conveniently allowed the blame to be pinned on the former leader. In its statement to MEE, the commission conceded that “the failure of leadership extended across the Labour Party during the period [of] our investigation”.

But in practice, the report and commission have pinned the blame squarely on Corbyn. Alasdair Henderson, the commission’s lead investigator, has been quoted as saying “Jeremy Corbyn is ultimately accountable & responsible for what happened at that time.”

But Corbyn was not responsible for those flawed procedures.

They long predated his election as leader. And further, his ability to influence the complaints procedure for the better was highly limited by the fact that the party’s disciplinary unit was firmly in the hands of a centrist bureaucracy deeply hostile to him.

As an internal report leaked in the spring made clear, Labour’s senior officials were so opposed to Corbyn and his socialist agenda that they even tried to sabotage the 2017 general election to be rid of him. They soon found in antisemitism an ideal way to besmirch Corbyn. They took on dubious cases that – before he became leader – would never have been considered, including against Jewish members of the party strenuously critical of Israel. Then they impeded the resolution of complaints as a way to foster the impression that the party – and by implication, Corbyn himself – was not taking the issue of antisemitism seriously.

By the time most of these officials had left their posts by early 2018, the equalities commission concedes that the handling of antisemitism complaints had started to improve.

As Peter Oborne and Richard Sanders, my colleagues at Middle East Eye, have pointed out, there is a rich irony to the fact that these same officials have refashioned themselves as antisemitism “whistleblowers” when it is they who were primarily responsible for the biggest failings noted by the commission. It was these officials who helped create the politicised climate that made it possible for the EHRC to take on its 18-month investigation – the first into a major political party.

Unfair investigations

The watchdog body’s second finding against Labour follows from – and starkly contradicts – the first. Corbyn’s team are blamed for “political interference” in the complaints procedure, creating the risk of “indirect discrimination”.

Out of 70 complaints it studied, it found 23 instances over a three-year period where there was “political interference” by the leader’s office and other actors in the handling of antisemitism cases.

In most of these, Corbyn’s staff were seeking to expedite stalled antisemitism proceedings that were causing – and meant to cause – the party a great deal of embarrassment. They were trying to do exactly what critics like the Board of Deputies of British Jews demanded of them.

The EHRC report accepted that, in some cases, interference by Corbyn staff catalysed action.

Buried in the report is the astonishing admission by the commission that, among the 70 sampled cases, it found “concerns about fairness” towards 42 Labour Party members who had been investigated for antisemitism. In others words, it was those accused of antisemitism, rather than those making the accusations, who were being mistreated by Labour – either by the disciplinary unit hostile to Corbyn or by Corbyn’s own staff as they tried to speed up the resolution of cases.

Damned if you do, or don’t

In the report, the commission holds Corbyn’s team to an impossible standard. Labour was expected to demonstrate “zero tolerance” towards antisemitism, but Corbyn’s team is now accused of discriminatory actions for having tried to make good on that pledge.

Exemplifying this inconsistency, the equalities watchdog found that Ken Livingstone, a former mayor of London, committed “unlawful harassment”. At the same time, the commission castigates Corbyn’s office for trying to get firmer action taken against him.

In another case, Corbyn’s inner circle expressed concern – after requests for advice by the disciplinary unit itself – that the complaints procedure risked being discredited if Jewish members continued to be investigated for antisemitism, typically after criticising Israel.

This looks like a classic example of “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

When questioned on this point by MEE, the commission responded: “The inappropriateness of political interference in antisemitism complaints is not necessarily about the outcome that it led to, but rather the contamination of the fairness of the process.” This was a matter of “public confidence”.

But “public confidence” has been quietly repurposed: it no longer chiefly concerns a lack of seriousness from Labour about tackling antisemitism; it denotes instead Labour being too hasty and, in some cases, aggressive in tackling antisemitism.

Similarly, the use of the term “indirect discrimination” is deeply counter-intuitive in the context of the commission’s remit to investigate racism. “Discrimination” often appears to refer to efforts by Corbyn’s circle to ensure that Jewish party members, whether those accused of antisemitism or those doing the accusing, were treated sensitively – even if that came at the cost of fairness to non-Jewish members.

Hounded out of Labour

The elephant in the room ignored by the commission is that there was a “hostile environment” for everyone in the party, not just Jewish members, because of this civil war.

Did Jewish and non-Jewish members accused of being antisemites – often after criticising Israel or observing that there were efforts to rid the party of the left under cover of antisemitism allegations – feel welcomed in the Labour Party? Or did they feel hounded and stigmatised?

With this in mind, it is worth noting that the most high-profile case of former Labour MP Chris Williamson, is absent from the report’s major criticisms.

Williamson, a Corbyn ally, was forced out last year after suggesting that Labour had conceded too much ground to those critics claiming the party was beset by antisemitism. Labour, he argued, had thereby made those claims seem more plausible.

The commission repeatedly suggests in the report that comments of this kind constitute what it calls an “antisemitic trope”. Many party members have faced investigation and suspension or expulsion for making similar observations. Indeed, Williamson’s remark closely echoes last week’s comment by Corbyn that the scale of antisemitism in Labour had been “dramatically overstated”. That led to Corbyn’s suspension.

But unusually Williamson challenged his treatment by Labour in the high court last year and won. After he was sent a draft of the report, Williamson threatened legal action against the equalities commission for what he termed “an assortment of risible and offensive comments”.

Apparently as a consequence, he is not named alongside the two officials criticised in the report – Livingstone and Pam Bromley. In fact, again paradoxically, he is mentioned chiefly in relation to “political interference” in Labour’s complaints procedure – because, in scandalous fashion, he was suspended, then reinstated, then quickly suspended again.

The abuses suffered by Williamson serve to show once again just how perverse the media narrative about Labour’s treatment of antisemitism so often was. Rather than ignoring antisemitism, Labour too often hounded people like Williamson out of the party on the flimsiest of evidence.

It was exactly this kind of “political interference” against Williamson and others that suggests antisemitism was indeed weaponised in the Labour party.

Free speech ignored

The commission is legally required to weigh and balance competing rights – to free speech and to protection from racism. Such considerations are especially tricky when examining the conduct of a major political party.

The equalities watchdog has to take account of Article 10  of the European Convention of Human Rights – protecting freedom of speech – that is also enshrined in UK law. But the commission’s findings appear to clash fundamentally with respect for free speech. Any reasonable reading of the law suggests that a political party should be investigated only when it flagrantly and systematically breaks anti-racism laws. But the report itself shows that those conditions were nowhere near being met.

The commission itself makes this point inadvertently in the report. It states that Article 10 protections apply even if comments are offensive and provocative, and that this protection is further “enhanced” in the case of elected politicians.

It adds: “Article 10 will protect Labour Party members who, for example, make legitimate criticisms of the Israeli government, or express their opinions on internal Party matters, such as the scale of antisemitism within the Party.” It then proceeds to ignore that protection entirely in the report, as the Labour Party has done once again in its suspension of Corbyn.

A reasonable reading of Article 10 would suggest too that, in weighing the Labour Party’s approach to antisemitism, the commission was obligated to offer a clear, precise and non-controversial definition of antisemitism. That definition would then have set the bar for the commission to determine whether significant proof had been found of antisemitism in the party’s practices to justify placing limitations on free speech.

Contested language

But that bar could not be determined because the commission never properly set out what it meant by antisemitism. Instead the commission has shouldered its way into a factional war inside a major political party, and one in which language itself – with all its ambiguities – has become deeply contested.

In response to these criticisms, the commission observed that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition – widely criticised for conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism but forced on Corbyn when he was Labour leader – “is not legally binding”. It added: “We note the approach of the Home Affairs Select Committee, namely that it is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, to criticise the Israeli government, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.”

That definition, of course, leaves out in the cold many on the party’s left, including its Jewish left, who believe Israel is not a liberal democracy and does not even aspire to be one, as the passage of Israel’s Jewish Nation State Law made clear in 2018. That law excluded a fifth of Israel’s population who are not Jewish from the state’s self-definition. In imposing ideological assumptions of this kind on a political party, the commission itself appears to be the one most guilty of “political interference”.

Lack of evidence

Far from resolving tensions, the EHRC report accentuates the party’s festering, irreconcilable narratives about antisemitism. It adds considerable fire to the party’s simmering civil war.

The referral to the commission was made by two pro-Israel groups, the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) and the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM).

Corbyn’s supporters argued that the claims of an especial antisemitism problem in Labour amounted to an ideologically motivated and evidence-free smear. When Corbyn tried to defend his record last week, arguing that the scale of the antisemitism problem had been “dramatically overstated for political reasons”, he was suspended.

But he and his allies have solid evidence to justify that claim.

First, they note, surveys demonstrate that Labour supporters were less likely to express antisemitic attitudes than Conservative supporters or the general public. A poll by the Economist magazine last year showed that while those on the far-left in the UK had by far the most critical views of Israel, they were also the least likely to engage in antisemitism.

Second, Corbyn’s supporters can point to the party’s own statistics that show only a minuscule proportion of members were ever referred to the party’s disciplinary procedure for antisemitism. That was the case even after pro-Israel groups like the CAA and the JLM scoured social media accounts trying to find examples to discredit Corbyn and after they managed to browbeat the party into adopting the new IHRA definition of antisemitism that conflated hatred of Jews with criticism of Israel.

And third, of those who faced investigation for antisemitism, a significant proportion were Jewish members outspoken in their criticism of Israel. Many Jews vocally opposed to Israel are active in the Labour Party, including nowadays in a group called Jewish Voice for Labour. By obscuring the fact that many of Israel’s harshest critics in Labour were Jewish, the media and pro-Israel partisans handed Corbyn’s opponents a convenient whip to beat him with.

Again, questioned on the report’s failure to address the lack of evidence, the commission’s statement to MEE reiterated the point that the report “did not focus on an assessment of the scale of antisemitism in the Party”. And, seemingly confirming the criticisms of groups like Jewish Voice for Labour that there very few antisemitism cases among a membership of over 500,000, the statement added: “The complaints included more than 220 allegations of antisemitism within the Labour Party, dating back to 2011.”

Establishment campaign

The commission’s report avoids addressing any of this evidence, which would have undermined the rationale for its investigation and suggested its political nature. But if Corbyn’s supporters are right and there was little tangible evidence for claiming Labour had an especial antisemitism problem – aside, inevitably, from a small number of antisemites in its ranks – how did the clamour grow so big?

Here the EHRC allies with Corbyn’s critics in advancing a self-rationalising theory. It appears to accept that anyone who denies Labour had a distinct antisemitism problem under Corbyn – or claims that Labour had no more of a problem than the rest of British society – thereby proves that they are an antisemite.

But in reality there are other, entirely credible reasons about why the antisemitism claims against Labour were, as Corbyn observed, “dramatically overstated for political reasons”, or were even outright smears.

Corbyn was indeed targeted by pro-Israel groups for very understandable reasons, from their partisan perspective. He was the first British party leader within reach of power to unapologetically support the Palestinian cause and threaten Israel with serious repercussions for its continuing oppression of the Palestinian people.

But the claims of pro-Israel lobbyists only gained traction politically because, in concert, he was being targeted by the neoliberal establishment. That included the media, the Conservative Party and, particularly damagingly, the still-dominant “Blairite” wing of his own party, which hankered for a return to Labour’s glory days under former leader Tony Blair.

They all wanted to keep Corbyn from reaching No 10. Ultimately, antisemitism proved the most effective of a range of smears they tried on Corbyn for size. The goal was to discredit him in the eyes of British voters to ensure he could never implement a socialist platform that would challenge establishment interests head-on.

‘Part of government machine’

Realistically, the EHRC was never going to side with Corbyn and his supporters against this establishment narrative. In its statement to MEE, the equalities watchdog insisted it was an “independent regulator” that took its “political impartiality incredibly seriously”.

The commission, however, gives every appearance of being the epitome of an establishment body, full of corporate business people and lawyers honoured by the Queen. It has been sharply criticised even by former insiders. Simon Woolley, a former commissioner, recently noted that none of the current commissioners is black or Muslim, after he and Meral Hussein-Ece were forced out because, they say, there were seen as “too loud and vocal” on the wrong kind of race issues.

Meanwhile, David Isaacs, its outgoing chair, was appointed by the Conservative government in 2016 even though his law firm carried out “significant work for the government”. Concerns were raised by a parliamentary committee at the time about a very obvious conflict of interest.

Back in June, Corbyn noted to Middle East Eye that Conservative governments had slashed the commission’s budget by nearly three-quarters over the past decade. There have been widespread concerns that the watchdog body might wish to curry favour with the government to avoid further cuts. The commission was, Corbyn observed, now “part of the government machine”.

That might explain why, after making the incendiary decision to investigate the opposition Labour Party, the commission refused to carry out a similar investigation of the Conservatives, even though the evidence suggests that both Islamophobia and antisemitism are far more prevalent in the ruling party than Labour.

A beginning, not an end

Some in Labour may hope that the report will draw to a close the party’s troubling antisemitism chapter. They could not be more wrong.

Armed now with the blessing of the equalities commission, and emboldened by Corbyn’s suspension, the Campaign Against Antisemitism immediately sent a letter to the Labour Party demanding the scalps of a dozen more MPs, including Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader.

The Jewish Chronicle, which has been pushing for years the claim that Labour is riddled with antisemitism, published a leading article that the commission report “marks not an end but a beginning”.

The commission itself recommends that undefined “Jewish community stakeholders” be put in charge of training Labour Party officials about antisemitism. In practice, those stakeholders are likely to be the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Labour Movement, both of which have been keen to conflate antisemitism with entirely unrelated criticism of Israel.

In a now-familiar authoritarian move, Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, has warned local parties not to discuss the report or question its findings. And Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer, has threatened that anyone suggesting that antisemitism in Labour has been “exaggerated” or used for factional purposes – as even the commission implies in its report – will be summarily punished by the party.

Labour officials are reported to be already preparing to investigate expressions of support for Corbyn on social media, while MPs sympathetic to Corbyn are reportedly considering whether to jump before they are pushed out of the party. Len McCluskey, head of Unite, the biggest union donating to Labour, has spoken of “chaos” ahead. He warned: “A split party will be doomed to defeat.”

He is likely right. The civil war in Labour is on course to get worse. And that – as Britain reels under the glaring mismanagement and corruption of a Conservative government – will make some very happy indeed.

The post Corbyn was Never Going to get a Fair Hearing in the EHRC Antisemitism Report first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Begging Outrage: British Journalists for Assange

Even that title strikes an odd note.  It should not.  The Fourth Estate, historically reputed as the chamber of journalists and publishers keeping an eye on elected officials, received a blast of oxygen with the arrival of WikiLeaks.  This was daring, rich stuff: scientific journalism in the trenches, news gathering par excellence.  But what Julian Assange and WikiLeaks did was something unpardonable to many who pursue the journalist’s craft: sidestepping the newspaper censors, permitting unadulterated access to original sources.

People could finally scrutinise raw documents – cables, memoranda, briefing notes, diplomatic traffic – without the secondary and tertiary forms of self-censorship that characterise the newspaper imperium.  Editorially imposed measures could be outflanked; the biases and prejudices of newspaper moguls could be ignored.

This has meant that media outlets in the drought affected mainstream can only ever make quiet acknowledgments about the seriousness of the US case against Assange. It is why certain outlets fail, and have failed to cover the extradition proceedings against the publisher with any degree of serious alarm or considered fear.  When they do, irrelevant and inconsequential details feature like tabloid tat: the irate Assange, shouting from his caged stand; the kooky Assange, somewhat unhinged.

A central contention of the prosecution case against Assange is that he is no publisher or journalist being gradually asphyxiated by the apparatus of power for exposing it, but a cold, calculating purloiner of state secrets indifferent to the welfare of informants.  Thieves cannot avail themselves of press freedoms nor summon the solid protections of the US First Amendment, even if they did expose torture, war crimes and illegal renditions.  It is a narrative that has been fed shamelessly by certain members of the media fraternity, rendering them indifferent and, at times, even hostile to the efforts of WikiLeaks.  David Leigh and Luke Harding of The Guardian added kindling to this idea by publishing the full passphrase to the file of un-redacted US State Department cables in their 2011 book. It was foolish and clumsy, and did not shine a good light on the parties involved.

A train was set in motion: the German weekly Der Freitag ran a piece in August that same year pointing an indirect finger to the password revealed by Leigh and Harding; Assange, alarmed, had contacted the editor Jakob Augstein beforehand, telling him he “feared for the safety of informants”.  WikiLeaks then reached out to the US State Department warning that publication of the un-redacted trove was imminent.  This would have given time to US officials to take necessary measures to protect any protected sources.  Cryptome scrambled to publish the documents on September 1, 2011; WikiLeaks followed the next day.  The myth of Assange the indiscreet, incautious figure hostile to concealed identities was born.

It has been left to other courageous reporters to right the record at the trial.  As investigative journalist Stefania Maurizi recalled in her statement read at the extradition proceedings, “I went through the cables as systematically as possible.  I was given an encrypted USB stick, and once I returned to Italy I was given the password that would then allow opening the file.  Everything was done with utmost responsibility and attention.” She also noted how the password published by Leigh and Harding “was not the same password I myself was given at the time.”

Mature, snappy views have also featured from conservative British voices concerned by this grotesque overreach of US power.  In Britain, and elsewhere, these media commenters have been few in number in registering appropriate alarm at the implications of the US Department of Justice’s indictment against Assange.  Peter Oborne, writing last month, issued the call to fellow journalists to take up the case for WikiLeaks.  He starts with a scenario: imagine a political dissident held at London’s Belmarsh Prison charged with espionage offences by the People’s Republic of China.  The real offence?  Exposing atrocities by Chinese troops.  “To put it another way, that his real offence was committing the crime of journalism.”

Add to this the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture that the dissident in question showed “all the symptoms typical for prolonged exposure to psychological torture”, with Beijing pressuring UK authorities to extradite him to a place he could face 175 years in prison.  “The outrage from the British press would be deafening.”  Protests and vigils outside Belmarsh would be unhalting; debates would take place on “prime time news programmes, alongside a rush of questions in parliament.”

Oborne acknowledges the UK-US alliance.  But that should not matter one jot “as far as the British media is concerned.”  The Old Bailey trial marked “a profound moment for British journalists.”  Were Britain to capitulate to the Trump administration on this score, “the right to publish leaked material in the public interest would suffer a devastating blow.”  He noted the concerns of 169 lawyers and academics expressed in a letter to the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Home Secretary Priti Patel demanding government intervention.  “We call on you to act in accordance with national and international law, human rights and the rule of law by bringing an end to the ongoing extradition proceedings and granting Mr Assange his long overdue freedom.”

The dangers to the Fourth Estate to Oborne are incalculable.  On UK soil, an effort is being made by the US “to prosecute a non-US citizen, not living in the US, not publishing in the US, under US laws that deny the right to a public interest defence.”  Yet a myopic British press remains more interested in Assange’s character, one attacked for breaching the Bail Act in avoiding extradition to Sweden to face sexual misconduct suspicions, and the distracting point as to whether he really is a journalist.

Peter Hitchens, brother of the late Christopher and long departed from the barricades of Trotskyite fervour, is also very much on Oborne’s page.  Admirably, he starts his reflection on Assange by putting to rest notions of compromising fandom.  Assange “is not my world, and his people are not my people.”  But he was “wholly, furiously against the attempt by the United States government to extradite Assange from this country”.

Hitchens can seem a touch reactionary at times, his views heavily wrapped in the Union Jack.  A sounding board at The Daily Mail would suggest such tendencies.  But on Assange, he is sharp.   He rightly picks up on the barring of extraditions for political grounds under Article 4(1) of the UK-US Extradition Treaty.  He also notes the servility shown by UK officials to US power, given that the treaty permits Washington to “demand extradition of UK citizens and others for offences committed against US law.  This is so even though the supposed offence may have been committed in the UK by a person living in the UK.”

In Hitchen’s mind, it was inconceivable to envisage a situation where the US would reciprocate: submitting its citizens to the UK for leaking British secret documents.  But allowing Assange to face trial in the US would mean that “any British journalist who comes into possession of classified material from the US, though he has committed no crime according to our own law, faces the same danger.”  The process undermined national sovereignty and threatened press freedom.  No English court, he argued, “should accept this demand.”  Were the courts to fail, “any self-respecting Home Secretary should overrule them.”

Fittingly, and accurately, Hitchens describes the effort mounted against Assange as “a lawless kidnap” against an individual who exposed “inconvenient” truths of US power.  It would be heartening to see more journalists, notably British ones, turning their mind to this awful reality, instead of falling for yellow press, click-bait distractions.

The post Begging Outrage: British Journalists for Assange first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Guardian-Friendly Omissions

In his latest book, This Land: The Story of a Movement ((Penguin, ebook version, 2020.)), the Guardian’s Owen Jones charts the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn.

Jones depicts Corbyn as a ‘scruffy,’ (p. 8), ‘unkempt’ (p. 50), thoroughly shambolic backbench MP, ‘the most unlikely’ (p. 50) of contenders for the Labour leadership. In May 2015, Corbyn reluctantly dipped his toe in the water of the leadership contest, saying: ‘You better make fucking sure I don’t get elected’ (p. 54), only to be swept away on a tide of popular support.

As this suggests, Jones argues that while Corbyn was indeed relentlessly savaged by forces both inside and outside the Labour Party – including the ‘mainstream’ media, with ‘profound hostility’ from ‘the publicly funded, professedly impartial’ BBC (p. 68) – he was out of his depth, his team making constant, massive mistakes from which all progressives must learn. It is not at all inevitable, Jones says, that future leftist movements need suffer the same fate.

Much of this analysis is interesting and useful; Jones interviewed 170 insiders closest to the action, ‘people at the top of the Labour Party right down to grassroots activists’, who supply important insights on key events.

Jones portrays himself as someone who fundamentally agrees with much that motivated Corbyn, emphasising that his disagreement lies in tactics and strategy. But, once again, we note a remarkable pattern of omissions in the work of Jones, an ostensibly outspoken, unconstrained leftist, and by his serious misreading of the antisemitism furore that engulfed Corbyn.

Jones recognises that people loved Corbyn because, unusually for a UK politician, he was made of flesh rather than PR plastic; he told the truth:

‘While other contenders refused to give direct answers to questions, and were caught squirming between their principles and their political compromises, he spoke with immediacy – sometimes rambling, always authentic, always passionate.’ (p. 57)

Ironically, Jones does plenty of his own ‘squirming’ between ‘principles’ and ‘political compromises’ as he airbrushes out of existence facts, views and voices that are consistently and conspicuously Guardian-unfriendly. He writes:

‘Corbynism… was woven together from many disparate strands: from people who marched against the Iraq war in 2003’ to people hit by the ‘trebling of college tuition fees in 2010’ and ‘the millions more frightened by a looming climate emergency’. (p. 10)

Above all, of course, ‘Corbyn’s entire career had been devoted to foreign affairs’. (p. 29) Andrew Murray of the union, Unite commented: ‘Corbyn was very prominent in the anti-war movement.’ (p. 33)

Thus, deep popular outrage at the Iraq war is key in understanding Corbyn’s popularity. And yet, in discussing this central feature of the movement, Jones makes no mention at all of Julian Assange (or WikiLeaks), of Noam Chomsky, or John Pilger – the most important anti-war voices – exactly as he made no mention of them in his previous book, The Establishment, published in 2014.

Jones has not mentioned Assange in his Guardian column in the last twelve months. Indeed, his sole substantive mention came in April 2019.

Corbyn became Labour leader in 2015, but Jones mentions NATO’s catastrophic, 2011 war on Libya, opposed by Corbyn, once in passing, noting merely that Labour MP Chris Williamson had ‘supported the war in Libya’. (p. 251)

Jones’ previous book, The Establishment, published three years after NATO’s assault, similarly granted ‘Libya’ a single mention, noting that UK voters were ‘Weary of being dragged by their rulers into disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya…’.1. (See our discussion.)

The fact that the US-UK assault resulted in mass death, ethnic cleansing, mass displacement for millions of Libyans and the destruction of the entire country was not mentioned in either book.

Elsewhere, Jones has been more forthright. In February 2011, with NATO ‘intervention’ clearly looming, he tweeted:

‘I hope it’s game over for Gaddafi. A savage dictator once tragically embraced by me on left + lately western governments and oil companies.’2

On 20 March 2011, one day after NATO bombing had begun, like someone writing for the ‘Soaraway Sun’, Jones commented:

‘Let’s be clear. Other than a few nutters, we all want Gaddafi overthrown, dead or alive.’3

Similarly, in 2012, Jones reacted to news of the killings of Syrian ministers in a bomb explosion with:

‘Adios, Assad (I hope).’4

After all, Jones tweeted, ‘this is a popular uprising, not arriving on the back of western cruise missiles, tanks and bullets’.4

As was very obvious then and indisputable now, Jones was badly mistaken.  The West, directly and via regional allies, played a massive role in the violence. The New York Times reported that the US had become embroiled in a dirty war in Syria that constituted ‘one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the C.I.A’, running to ‘more than $1 billion over the life of the program’.5

As though tweeting from the NATO playbook, the same Guardian columnist now analysing the peace movement supporting Corbyn, wrote:

‘I’m promoting the overthrow of illegitimate and brutal dictatorships by their own people to establish democracies.’4

In This Land, Jones mentions Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in famine-stricken Yemen exactly once, again in passing:

‘…Labour MPs refused to back Corbyn’s call for a UN investigation into alleged Saudi war crimes in Yemen’. (p. 81)

There is no mention of the UK’s support for these crimes since 2011, no discussion of the horrors the UK has inflicted (See our discussion). The word ‘Yemen’ was unmentioned in Jones’ previous book in 2014. To his credit, he has written several Guardian pieces on the war in Yemen, the most recent in 2018.

Gaza was mentioned once, in passing, in Jones’ previous book and three times, in passing, in This Land. Our media database search found that, since he joined the Guardian in March 2014, Jones has made three substantive mentions of Gaza, in 2014 (a philosophical piece focusing on ‘How the occupation of Gaza corrupts the occupier’, with few facts about the situation in Gaza) a brief piece here, and one in 2018 (with a single paragraph on Gaza).

This Land simply ignores the Western propaganda wars on Iran and Venezuela.

Remarkably, while recognising the role of climate fears in the rise of Corbyn and discussing the UK’s ‘Climate Camp’ in the late 2000s, Jones makes no mention of Extinction Rebellion or of Greta Thunberg, both strongly supported by Corbyn, further fuelling popular support for his cause.

There is no mention of the Guardian’s lead role in destroying Corbyn; although, ironically, Jones does celebrate the fact that, ‘I wrote the first pro-Corbyn column to appear in the mainstream media: a Guardian piece’. (p. 53)

The silence is unsurprising. In 2017, Jones tweeted:

‘I’m barred from criticising colleagues in my column.’6

He wasn’t joking:

‘Guardian colleagues aren’t supposed to have these public spats…’

Of his own opposition to Corbyn, in the Guardian and elsewhere, Jones writes:

‘Although I voted for him again in 2016, I had a period of disillusionment before the [June 2017] general election – something which still riles his most ardent supporters.’ (p. 14)

In fact, the ‘period of disillusionment’ was extensive and began long before the 2017 election. In July 2016, fully one year earlier, Jones wrote:

‘As Jeremy Corbyn is surrounded by cheering crowds, Labour generally, and the left specifically, are teetering on the edge of looming calamity.’

He added:

‘As things stand, all the evidence suggests that Labour — and the left as a whole — is on the cusp of a total disaster. Many of you won’t thank me now. But what will you say when you see the exit poll at the next general election and Labour is set to be wiped out as a political force?’

Similar comments followed in February, March and April 2017. For example:

‘My passionate and sincere view is Jeremy Corbyn should stand down as soon as possible in exchange for another left-wing MP being allowed to stand on for leadership in his place: all to stop both Labour and the left imploding, which is what is currently on the cards.’7

Blaming The Victim – The Great, Fake Antisemitism Scandal

Time and again, Jones criticises the Corbyn leadership for failing to deal adequately with antisemitism claims: ‘there was no coherent strategy within the leader’s office on how to tackle claims of antisemitism’. (p. 227)

While Jones accepts that there were ‘bad-faith actors opposed to Corbyn’s policies’, his emphasis is focused elsewhere: ‘ultimately there were severe and repeated errors by the leadership, which resulted from those two characteristic failings: a lack of both strategy and emotional intelligence’. (p. 254)

Remarkably, Jones concludes that the crisis ‘need never have happened’. (p. 254)

This is nonsense. The crisis had to happen because sufficiently powerful forces within the Labour Party and Conservative Party, and across the corporate media ‘spectrum’, were determined to make it happen.

Compare Jones’ account with that of Norman Finkelstein, whose mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Majdanek concentration camp and two slave labour camps. Finkelstein’s father was a survivor of both the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp. In an interview with RT in May, Finkelstein commented:

‘Corbyn, he did not present a threat only to Israel and Israel’s supporters, he posed a threat to the whole British elite. Across the board, from the Guardian to the Daily Mail, they all joined in the new anti-semitism campaign. Now that’s unprecedented – the entire British elite, during this whole completely contrived, fabricated, absurd and obscene assault on this alleged Labour anti-semitism, of which there is exactly zero evidence, zero.’

He added:

‘Yeah, there’s some fringe members of Labour who, you know, play the anti-semitic [interrupted by interviewer]… I read the polls, I read the data – it hovers between six and eight per cent are hardened anti-semites in British society. It’s nothing! Yeah, so there are a few crazies, but there’s no “institutionalised” anti-semitism in the British Labour Party. There’s no threat of anti-semitism in British society. I’ve read all the data, I’ve studied it closely. It just doesn’t exist. It’s all being designed and manipulated… I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, as you know, but this is a conspiracy.’

Jones accepts that ‘the former leadership and the vast majority of Labour’s membership abhor antisemitism’, arguing that the problem lay with a ‘small minority’. (p. 254) But Jones does not cite an October 2016 report by the Commons home affairs committee, which found:

‘Despite significant press and public attention on the Labour Party, and a number of revelations regarding inappropriate social media content, there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of antisemitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.’

And he does not cite a September 2017 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, which found:

‘Levels of antisemitism among those on the left-wing of the political spectrum, including the far-left, are indistinguishable from those found in the general population… The most antisemitic group on the political spectrum consists of those who identify as very right-wing: the presence of antisemitic attitudes in this group is 2 to 4 times higher compared to the general population.’

Instead, Jones pours scorn on leftists who ‘still were in denial, claiming that the antisemitism crisis had been entirely manufactured by a media “out to get” Corbyn…’ (p. 254)

Rational commentators have always accepted that antisemitism exists within the Labour Party. The point is that making that ugly reality a ‘crisis’ specifically for Labour, rather than for other parties and other sectors of society, and above all making it a ‘crisis’ for Corbyn – reviled as a dangerous antisemite – was entirely manufactured.

Jones cites ‘the passionately anti-Corbyn editor of the Jewish Chronicle’, Stephen Pollard, who grotesquely claimed to perceive ‘nudge, nudge’ (p. 253) antisemitism in one of Corbyn’s self-evidently anti-capitalist critiques. Such outlandish claims, Jones notes, only encouraged leftists to believe the whole furore was a smear campaign:

‘It was a vicious circle, and it turned to nobody’s benefit – least of all Corbyn’s, while causing more hurt and distress to Jewish people.’ (p. 253, our emphasis)

But this is absurd. Quite obviously, the smear campaign was to the very real benefit of the political and media forces trying to crush Corbyn’s version of socialism.

The claims targeting Corbyn were fake and they depended on ignoring as non-existent a mountain of evidence indicating that Corbyn is a passionate, committed and very active anti-racist. What is so outrageous is that this was accepted by essentially everyone before Corbyn stood for the leadership in 2015. As Jones comments:

‘Anti-racism is core to Corbyn’s sense of identity. He believes, proudly, that he has fought oppression all his life, so being labelled a racist was a cause of profound personal trauma to him.’ (p. 228)

Corbyn’s chief of staff, Karie Murphy, commented on the impact of the smear campaign:

‘This was a man who was beyond broken-hearted, that, as a proud antiracist campaigner, he was being accused of racism. So he was paralysed… It wasn’t true – no one will convince me that he has an antisemitic bone in his body…’ (p. 242)

Genuine racists are not left ‘beyond broken-hearted’ by claims that they are racist. They are not ‘paralysed’ by a sense of injustice and grief.

Jones comments on Corbyn: ‘no one close to him believes for a moment that he would ever willingly associate with a Holocaust denier’. (p. 222) And Corbyn ‘could point to an extensive record opposing antisemitism and showing pro-Jewish solidarity’ (p. 221). Jones lists some of Corbyn’s efforts in this regard: helping to organise a counter-mobilisation to a demonstration by National Front fascists in the so-called Battle of Wood Green in 1977; taking part in a campaign to save a Jewish cemetery from being sold off to property developers in 1987, calling on the British government to settle Yemeni Jewish refugees in 2010.

Before the sheer intensity of propaganda caused most commentators to find truth in lies, Corbyn’s deep-rooted opposition to racism was simply unquestioned. Chris Mullin, who did not vote for Corbyn to either become or remain leader, commented:

‘I’ve always liked him as long as I’ve known him. He’s a thoroughly decent human being, almost a saintly man.’ (p. 30)

As Jones writes of Corbyn at the time he stood for the leadership in 2015:

‘Corbyn had no personal enemies. Everyone liked him. Relentlessly cheerful, endlessly generous with his opponents, he exuded integrity.’ (pp. 50-51)

Despite this, Jones says of the antisemitism crisis:

‘The damage to Corbyn’s Labour was grievous. The crisis led to months of media coverage.’ (p. 254)

In fact, the media coverage was the crisis! It was this real crisis that was the cause of the ‘crisis’. The antisemitism ‘crisis’ was just one more fabrication by an awesomely corrupt and immoral media system willing to throw, not just the kitchen sink, but – God help us! – Nazi gas chambers at Corbyn.

The key to understanding the anti-semitism ‘scandal’ was explained by Jones himself:

‘Anybody who knows anything about the British press knows that it is almost unique in the Western world for its level of commitment to aggressively defending and furthering right-wing partisan politics… the media onslaught that greeted his [Corbyn’s] leadership win in 2015 was as predictable as it was unrelentingly hostile.’ (p. 67)

Jones lists only a few of the endlessly fabricated stories used to smear Corbyn: he supposedly planned to ‘abolish’ the army, refused to bow his head on Remembrance Day, danced happily on Remembrance Day, didn’t sing the national anthem loudly enough, and so on. The London School of Economics reported in 2016:

‘the British press systematically delegitimised Jeremy Corbyn as a political leader’ through a ‘process of vilification that went beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy’. (p. 68)

Corbyn’s great anti-semitism ‘scandal’ was a non-story, a fabricated non-event, a Soviet-style propaganda smear. Sufficient numbers of people wanted it to be true because they wanted to be rid of Corbyn. Everyone else bowed their heads to avoid being subject to the same career-destroying smears.

Jones often mentions Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite Union, in This Land. McCluskey commented in the New Statesman last week on Corbyn’s press chief Seumas Milne and chief of staff Karie Murphy:

‘Having given a brilliant and detailed polemic of the history of anti-Semitism, he [Jones] veers away to lay blame at the [door of] Milne and Murphy, based on a distorted view of what it was like trying to deal with the constant daily attacks.

‘When you are in a war – and be under no illusion, from day one of his leadership, Corbyn was subjected to an internal and external war – you develop methods of defence and attack that change by necessity almost on a daily, if not hourly basis.  Being in your living room, observing with a typewriter, is a damn sight easier than being in the ditches on the front line, trying to dodge bullets flying at you from all angles, especially from your own side.’

Establishment forces were out to destroy Corbyn with antisemitism, or whatever else they could think of, no matter what he did, how he replied. And it worked. The incompetence of Corbyn’s team may have made things worse, but the truth that matters is that a form of ruthless fascism arose out of British society to crush an attempt to create a more democratic politics.

Needless to say, Jones has not one word to say about the lead role of his employer, the Guardian, in the antisemitism smear campaign.

Conclusion

Why do we focus so intensely on popular progressives like Owen Jones, George Monbiot and loveable, NATO-loving loon Paul Mason?

The reason is that they breathe life into the faded dream that progressive change can be achieved by working within and for profit-maximising corporations that are precisely the cause of so many of our crises. Even the best journalists cannot tell the truth within these undemocratic systems of top-down power. As Jones freely admits, they have to compromise, to self-censor. Guardian colleagues may not be criticised! Ultimately, they have to compromise in ways that allow the state-corporate status quo to thunder on.

Our most celebrated public radicals – almost all of them made famous by corporate media – function as dissident vaccines that inoculate the public against a pandemic of authentic dissent.

Corporate media are careful to incorporate a tiny bit of progressive poison, so that we all hang around for a whole lot of propaganda-drenched news and commentary, and a perma-tsunami of unanswered corporate advertising persuading us that status consumption, status production and paper-thin concern for the problems of our world are all there is.

Ultimately, corporate dissidents are the final nail in the corporate coffin, normalising the blind, patently doomed rush to disaster called ‘business as usual.’

  1. Owen Jones, The Establishment:  And how they get away with it, Penguin, 2014, p. 275.
  2. Jones, Twitter, 20 February 2011.
  3. Jones, ‘The case against bombing Libya’, Left Futures, March 2011.
  4. Jones, Twitter, 18 July 2012.
  5. Mark Mazzetti, Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt, ‘Behind the sudden death of a $1 billion secret C.I.A. war in Syria’, New York Times, 2 August 2017.
  6. Jones, Twitter, 19 November 2017.
  7. Jones: ‘“I don’t enjoy protesting – I do it because the stakes are so high”’, Evening Standard, 3 February 2017.

The post Guardian-Friendly Omissions first appeared on Dissident Voice.

“The Guardian’s Silence has let the UK trample on Assange’s Rights in Effective Darkness”

WISE Up, a solidarity group for Julian Assange and whistleblower Chelsea Manning, is due to stage a demonstration outside the Guardian offices on October 22 to protest the paper’s failure to support Assange as the US seeks his extradition in an unprecedented assault on press freedom.

The date chosen for the protest marks the tenth anniversary of the Guardian’s publication of the Iraq war logs, leaked by Manning to Assange and which lie at the heart of the US case to reclassify journalism exposing crimes against humanity as “espionage”.

Here is my full statement, part of which is due to be read out, in support of Assange and castigating the Guardian for its craven failure to speak up in solidarity with its former media partner:

Julian Assange has been hounded out of public life and public view by the UK and US governments for the best part of a decade. Now he languishes in a small, airless cell in Belmarsh high-security prison in London – a victim of arbitrary detention, according to a UN working group, and a victim of psychological torture, according to Nils Melzer, the UN’s expert on torture.

If Judge Vanessa Baraitser, presiding in the Central Criminal Court in London, agrees, as she gives every appearance of preparing to do, Assange will be the first journalist to face a terrifying new ordeal – a form of extraordinary rendition to the United States for “espionage” – for having the courage to publish documents that exposed US war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The Guardian worked with Assange and Wikileaks on vitally important documents – now at the heart of the US case against Assange – known as the Afghanistan and Iraq war logs. The latter were published exactly a decade ago today. They were a journalistic coup of global significance, and the paper ought to be profoundly proud of its role in bringing them to public attention.

During Assange’s extradition hearing, however, the Guardian treated the logs and its past association with Assange and Wikileaks more like a dirty secret it hoped to keep out of sight. Those scoops furnished by Assange and whistleblower Chelsea Manning enriched the paper financially, and bolstered its standing internationally. They also helped to pave its path into the lucrative US market.

Unlike Assange and Manning, the Guardian has suffered no consequences for publishing the logs. Unlike Assange and Manning, the paper has faced no retribution. While it profited, Assange continues to be made an example of – to deter other journalists from contemplating following in his footsteps.

The Guardian owes Assange.

  • It owes him a huge debt for allowing it to share in the journalistic glory of Wikileaks’ revelations.
  • It owes him a duty of care as its partner in publishing the logs.
  • It owes him its voice loudly denouncing the abuse of a fellow journalist for doing the essence of journalism – holding the powerful to account.
  • It owes him and its own staff, and the young journalists who will one day take their place, its muscle in vigorously defending the principle of a strong and free press.
  • It owes him, and the rest of us, a clear profession of its outrage as the US conducts an unprecedented assault on free speech, the foundation of a democratic society.

And yet the Guardian has barely raised its voice above a whisper as the noose has tightened around Assange’s – and by extension, our – neck. It has barely bothered to cover the dramatic and deeply disturbing developments of last month’s extradition hearing, or the blatant abuses of legal process overseen by Baraitser.

The Guardian has failed to raise its editorial voice in condemnation either of the patently dishonest US case for extradition or of the undisguised mistreatment of Assange by Britain’s legal and judicial authorities.

The paper’s many columnists ignored the proceedings too, except for those who contributed yet more snide and personal attacks of the kind that have typified the Guardian’s coverage of Assange for many years.

It is not too late for the paper to act in defence of Assange and journalism. Assange’s rights are being trampled under foot close by the Guardian’s offices in London because the British establishment knows that these abuses are taking place effectively in darkness. It has nothing to fear as long as the media abdicates its responsibility to scrutinise what amounts to the biggest attack on journalism in living memory.

Were the Guardian to shine a light on Assange’s case – as it is morally obligated to do – the pressure would build on other media organisations, not least the BBC, to do their job properly too. The British establishment would finally face a countervailing pressure to the one being exerted so forcefully by the US.

The Guardian should have stood up for Assange long ago, when the threats he and investigative journalism faced became unmistakable. It missed that opportunity. But the threats to Assange – and the causes of transparency and accountability he champions – have not gone away. They have only intensified. Assange needs the Guardian’s support more urgently, more desperately than ever before.

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Britannic Impunity: The UK Overseas Operations Bill

It was praised by Michael Clarke, former Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute, as “clear and entire laudable” – at least up to a point.  The UK Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill would “give [British] troops serving overseas much-needed extra protection against fraudulent or frivolous claims against them of criminal behaviour.”  It was also part of a commitment made by the Conservatives that British personnel would be padded with more legal protection against the nasty designs of future litigants.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer had his lines in order, and they were not particularly convincing.  “This legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law but protecting them from lawyers intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets.”  For Mercer, Britannia is exceptional, a cut above the rest, suggesting, in the lingering wisdom of British imperialism, that they are just a bit more exceptional in hypocrisy than others.

The Ministry of Defence has been feathering grounds for such changes arguing that unnecessary claims have been made against its personnel.  They include compensation claims for unlawful detention regarding operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.  To this can be added 1,400 judicial review claims for investigations and compensations on the basis that human rights have been violated. Of these, 70 percent assessed by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team were dismissed as having no case to answer.

Instances such as those of solicitor Phil Shiner are cited, that ever zealous creature who was found guilty on five counts of dishonesty by the Solicitor’s Disciplinary Tribunal in February 2017 for tampering with evidence submitted to the Al-Sweady inquiry into allegations of atrocities in Iraq.  Shiner was accused of showing a “clear disregard for the rules” in terms of his actions, having circulated “deliberate and calculated lies” regarding alleged atrocities by British soldiers after the commencement of the Iraq War.

The Bill has a particularly odious provision that serves to impose a five year time limit on prosecuting crimes that span offences committed by UK personnel while serving in overseas theatres, including a whole range of reprehensible offences, potentially including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.  Operations “dealing with terrorism” and peacekeeping endeavours will also be covered.

What is being proposed is, in effect, a statute of limitations on grave criminality, a presumption against prosecution. Out with such solemn declarations that genocide is so reprehensible a crime as to defy time itself.  In with more practical, paperwork limitations shielding abuses from legal review.

This would be part of what is described as a “triple lock” against unwanted suits against UK military personnel, the two other features involving a range of considerations prosecutors would have to give “particular weight to” against pursuing a case, and a requirement to obtain the consent of the Attorney General, or Advocate General in Northern Ireland, before commencing any prosecution.  The Bill would also impose a duty on the government to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights regarding significant overseas military operations.

To round it all off, Part II of the Bill also adds a time bar on civil claims against the Ministry of Defence by both survivors of torture and UK soldiers themselves who might have a grievance with their employer.  Claimants will also be barred by the time limit despite being unlawfully detained or impeded in bringing forth their actions.

Should it become law, the Bill will jar with obligations arising under the Geneva Conventions.  The Additional Protocol 1 of 1977 is a stand out on that score.  A range of other international legal instruments also risk being breached, including the Convention Against Torture.  As the legal action charity Reprieve argues in its submission to parliament on the Bill, “This risks effectively decriminalising torture when committed by UK forces overseas more than five years ago.”  The organisation even notes that the proposed law would run counter to a 300 year old tradition stretching back to the Long Parliament’s Abolition of the Star Chamber in 1640.

The legal establishment is also concerned.  In the sober words of the Law Society, “the proposal to introduce a presumption against prosecution amounts to a quasi-statute of limitations.  Introducing a time limit risks creating impunity for serious crimes and the proposal would be an exception to the normal law for a category of criminal matters that does not exist anywhere else.”

Another submission on the Bill, written by Samuel Beswick of the University of British Columbia, points to a potential violation of the Equality Principle found deep in the immemorial foundations of UK constitutional law, spectral as it is: “that everyone is equally subjected to the ordinary law of the land: that the Crown and government officers do not benefit from more favourable rules than apply to the British people generally.”

Such concerns have not been the preserve of legal bleeding hearts and anti-torture charities.  The Judge Advocate General Jeff Blankett has also expressed deep reservations.  In the middle of the year, he wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence noting “significant misgivings” about a bill “ill-conceived” and dangerous in potentially bringing “the UK armed forces into disrepute”.

As for David Greene, vice president of the Law Society, something more flame-on-the-hill was at stake, and he had little desire for snuffing it out.  “Our armed forces are rightly known across the world for their courage and discipline.  Proposals to prevent the prosecution of alleged serious offences – including murder and torture – by service personnel outside the UK would undermine this well-deserved reputation and could break international law.”

The Bill is a classic, long overdue unmasking of the impunity that is British military power.  More than a Freudian slip, it is an elucidating admission.  In praising the standards of British military professionalism, Greene ignores the country’s thin record in prosecuting its own nationals for crimes committed in foreign theatres.  Clive Baldwin, Senior Legal Adviser to Human Rights Watch, points to the butcher of Amritsar Brigadier General Reginald Dyer as a case in point.  The killing of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children on April 13, 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh did little to even provoke an apology from the UK.  The most severe rebuke Dyer faced was enforced retirement.  “You might want to rewrite history, but you can’t,” sniffed the High Commissioner to India, Dominic Asquith, during commemoration proceedings held last year.

The deployment of torture in Kenya through the 1950s in response to the Mau Mau revolt against British rule barely stirred the prosecutor’s brief.  In 2013, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague recognised in the Commons “that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.”   Sincere regrets were offered, including £19.9m in compensation.  But defiant to the last, Hague insisted that the UK had no legal responsibility for the actions of the colonial administration.  Britannic contempt is deathless.

In focusing on such exceptional instances of manipulation as Shiner, the Bill is a riposte to British responsibility for more recent abuses in such theatres as Iraq.  Despite public inquiries and court rulings finding British forces culpable for abusing detainees, in some cases killing them, few prosecutions have been filed.  The death of Iraqi citizen Baha Mousa in September 2003 in Basra, the result of 93 surface injuries, led to an inquiry and a smattering of Court Martial proceedings. It also saw the first open admission by a British soldier to committing a war crime, though Corporal Donald Payne denied manslaughter and perverting the course of justice.  Six other colleagues from the 1 Queen’s Lancashire Regiment were ultimately acquitted.  Payne was jailed for one year.  A meagre return.

With the passage of this Bill, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Global Britain will abandon any pretence to Queensberry rules, or rules of any sort. The jungle is there for the taking, and other powers in the jungle will finally be able to point this out.  Clarke, sounding sorrowful, uses the standard understatement: that this Bill “opens up some intriguing possibilities for our adversaries, who love to claim international legitimacy for their blatantly illegal behaviour.”  It might be a suitable epitaph for British power for long stretches it has been exercised: legitimacy claimed for blatant illegality.

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George Monbiot’s Excuses for Not Speaking out Loudly in Defence of Assange Simply Won’t Wash

Faced with a barrage of criticism from some of his followers, George Monbiot, the Guardian’s supposedly fearless, left-wing columnist, offered up two extraordinarily feeble excuses this week for failing to provide more than cursory support for Julian Assange over the past month, as the Wikileaks founder has endured extradition hearings in a London courtroom.

The Trump administration wants Assange brought to the United States to face espionage charges that could see him locked away in a super-max prison on “special administrative measures”, unable to have meaningful contact with any other human being for the rest of his life. And that fate awaits him only because he embarrassed the US by exposing its war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq in the pages of newspapers like the New York Times and Guardian – and because Washington fears that Assange, if left free, would publish more disturbing truths about US actions around the globe.

But there is much more at stake than simply Assange’s rights being trampled on. He is not simply the western equivalent of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and dissident who notably offered his own support to Assange during the hearings. Weiwei covered his mouth outside the Old Bailey courtroom in protest at the media’s blanket silence over the crimes being perpetrated against Assange.

Assange faces a terrifying new kind of extraordinary rendition – one conducted not covertly by US security services but in the full glare of publicity and, if the London court approves, with the consent of the British judiciary. If extradition is authorised, a precedent will be set that allows the US to seize and jail any journalist who exposes its crimes. Inevitably, that will have a severe chilling effect on all journalists investigating the world’s only super-power. It will not only be the death of journalism’s already enfeebled role as a watchdog on power but a death blow against our societies’ commitment to the principles of freedom and openness.

The barest minimum

This should be reason enough for anyone to be deeply concerned about Assange’s extradition hearing, most especially journalists. And even more so a journalist like Monbiot, whose work’s lifeblood is the investigation of unaccountable power and its corrosive effects. If any British journalist ought to be shouting from the rooftops against Assange’s extradition, it is Monbiot.

And yet, he has failed to write a single column in the Guardian on Assange, and in response to mounting criticism from followers pointed to three retweets backing Assange during the past four weeks of extradition hearings. All three, we should note, were of articles published in his own newspaper, the Guardian, that broke with its hostile coverage and could be considered vaguely sympathetic to Assange.

This was the barest minimum that Monbiot could afford to be seen doing. After all, positioned as the Guardian’s left-wing conscience, it would have been strange indeed had he not retweeted the rare instances, in a sea of Guardian articles ridiculing and vilifying Assange, of the paper making a nod to its more left-wing readers.

But notably, Monbiot failed to retweet any of the daily articles posted by former UK ambassador Craig Murray that detailed the horrifying abuses of legal process against Assange during the extradition hearings as well as evidence from expert witness after expert witness that demolished the central claims of the US case. Monbiot did not retweet any of the articles or comments by the renowned investigative journalist John Pilger, who has been a stalwart defender of Assange.

He did not retweet the testimony of Noam Chomsky, the celebrated linguist and political analyst, that the US charges against Assange are entirely political in nature and therefore void the US extradition request. Monbiot has similarly ignored the comments of Nils Melzer, the United Nations’ expert on torture, that Assange is already being psychologically tortured by the combined actions of the UK and US to keep him locked up in extreme isolation and in a prolonged state of chronic fear for his future.

Monbiot also did not retweet the astounding evidence last week from a former employee of the Spanish company that provided security at the Ecuadorian embassy, where Assange spent seven years in political asylum. The whistleblower testified that under CIA direction the company broke the law by surveilling Assange, even in the toilet block, and listened in to his privileged conversations with his lawyers. This fact alone should have been enough to force the presiding judge, Vanessa Baraitser, to rule against the US extradition request.

Cowardly excuses

No, Monbiot told his followers about none of these developments or about much more that has emerged over the past four weeks. Instead he offered two cowardly excuses for why he has remained so mealymouthed at the worst assault on press freedom in living memory.

The first was that the Assange extradition hearing apparently isn’t important enough. It is simply “one of hundreds of crucial issues” and “compared to say, soil loss, it’s way down my list”.

No one can doubt that Monbiot rightly takes environmental issues extremely seriously. But he doesn’t just tweet and write about the environment. There are many others issues, entirely unconnected to the environment and of which he appears to know almost nothing, that he regularly writes about.

One will suffice as illustrative. For the past two years Monbiot has dedicated a great deal of time and energy – time and energy he has refused to expend on defending Assange and press freedom – to attack those who have questioned claims by the US and UK intelligence services that the Syrian government under Bashar Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack in Douma in April 2018. The supposed attack provided the pretext for the US to launch a bombing attack on Syria – an example of a supreme international crime, according to the Nuremberg principles.

Monbiot has tried to intimidate into silence those, including whistleblowers from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), who have suggested that, in fact, the evidence points to jihadist groups being responsible for what happened in Douma. Those jihadists – labelled “terrorists” by the western media in all countries other than Syria – have been explicitly financed by western allies like Saudi Arabia, and more covertly by the west itself. Nonetheless, Monbiot has smeared anyone sceptical of the official western narrative about Douma as an “Assad apologist”, including by implication the distinguished Middle East reporter Robert Fisk, who, unlike Monbiot, actually visited Douma.

Monbiot has no expertise on the Middle East, and presumably has drawn his conclusions from reading the Syria coverage of the Guardian, whose positions he precisely echoes. It is bad enough that he has used his platform to go on the offensive against those taking a critical position on the events in Douma. But worse still, he has swept up in his smear campaign whistleblowers from the OPCW, the United Nations’ chemical weapons watchdog body, who have been warning that the OPCW is no longer independent but has become a deeply politicised body that tampered with the inspectors’ findings in the Douma case to bolster Washington’s self-serving agenda in Syria.

The whistleblowers’ claims are hardly out of line with the wider picture of the OPCW. The organisation has been falling under Washington’s thumb for nearly two decades. The previous head of the OPCW, Jose Bustani, was forced out by the Bush administration after he sought to negotiate further weapons inspections of Iraq to deprive the US of a pretext to launch its illegal invasion in 2003. Angry that US plans for regime change might be disrupted, John Bolton, the warmongering US ambassador to the UN, even threatened Bustani: “We know where your kids live.”

At least three members of the OPCW team that investigated the Douma events have tried to warn that the evidence blaming Assad was doctored by the organisation’s officials and that their own research showed that the most likely culprit were jihadist groups – who presumably hoped to engineer a pretext for more direct western intervention in Syria to help them bring down the Syrian government.

Misinformation around the Douma events has grown so dire that Bustani himself recently tried to intervene on behalf of the whistleblowers at the Security Council. He noted in testimony blocked by the US and UK: “At great risk to themselves, they [the whistleblowers] have dared to speak out against possible irregular behaviour in your Organisation [the OPCW].” He added: “Hearing what your own inspectors have to say would be an important first step in mending the Organisation’s damaged reputation.”

Absurd argument

There are plenty of reasons, therefore, to criticise Monbiot for his smearing of the Douma sceptics and the OPCW whistleblowers. But I am not interested here in revisiting the Douma episode. The point I am making relates to Assange.

In asserting that he doesn’t have time to defend Assange, Monbiot is implicitly arguing that opposing the current all-out war by the US on journalism is a lower priority than his smearing of the OPCW whistleblowers; that bullying and silencing Douma sceptics is one of those “hundreds of crucial issues” more important than preventing Assange from spending the rest of his life in jail, and more important than saving investigative journalism from this gravest of assaults by the US.

To understand how absurd Monbiot’s argument is, let us note that the only way we can ever properly settle the Douma case – without regurgitating claims by the US and UK intelligence services, as Monbiot has been doing – is if someone manages to leak the classified communications on Douma between the US administration and the OPCW leadership. That would let us know whether it is the OPCW whistleblowers telling the truth or the suits in head office. The whistleblowers have already stated that US officials turned up at an OPCW meeting unannounced and in violation of the body’s independent status in a bid to lean on staff.

The only way we will learn the truth with any certainty is if there is a leak of documents – to an organisation like Assange’s group Wikileaks.

The war on Assange has not only been a war on journalism. It is also a war on the whistleblowers who have assisted journalists and Wikileaks in arriving at the truth. Hanging on the outcome of Assange’s case is not only his personal fate, but journalism’s very ability to tap into sources close to the centres of power. In abandoning Assange, we abandon any hope of finding out the truth on a whole range of the most pressing issues facing us.

If Monbiot hopes to be able to campaign more effectively on “hundreds of crucial issues” like soil loss and other environmental concerns, he needs Assange and Wikileaks as vigorous as possible, not Assange locked away in a dark cell and Wikileaks a shadow of the organisation it once was.

Monbiot, of course, does not need me to tell him all this. He understands it already. Which is why his behaviour needs explaining – a matter we will get to in a minute.

All too ready to tick boxes

But before that, let us turn our attention to his second, extraordinary excuse for failing to raise his voice above a whisper on Assange’s plight.

Monbiot claims he cannot add anything “original” to what has been said already about the Assange case and that “It’s not about ticking boxes” but about “expanding the field”.

Let us set aside the obvious lacuna in this argument: that Monbiot has been ticking every box imaginable on the Douma incident. He added precisely nothing to the debate apart from his own smears of the whistleblowers. All he did was echo the intelligence services’ talking points, which had already been given an extensive and uncritical airing in the Guardian.

So Monbiot is quite clearly capable of being highly unoriginal when he chooses to be.

But there are, of course, lots of original things Monbiot could contribute to the coverage of the Assange case in his own newspaper, the Guardian, given that the only people speaking up for Assange – apart from one article by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent – have been outside the “mainstream”, without a platform in the corporate media.

Monbiot could have served as a counterweight to the relentless maligning of Assange in the Guardian’s pages by pointing out how these smears were unfounded. Instead he has either echoed those smears, or equivocated on them, or remained silent. He could have, for example, observed that there were very good grounds for Assange to seek political asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy, as the extradition hearings have confirmed, in contrast to the constant claims in the Guardian that Assange was “fleeing rape charges” – charges that existed only in the imagination of newspaper editors – or that he was paranoid and arrogant.

Or Monbiot could have pointed out that the Guardian fabricated an easily disproved smear story that a Trump aide, Paul Manafort, and unnamed “Russians” had supposedly visited Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in secret three times – without leaving any evidence, even though the embassy was the most heavily surveilled building in London, both inside and out.

The story, presumably provided to the Guardian on an unattributable basis by one of the security services involved, was published to ensnare Assange in evidence-free Russiagate claims and thereby alienate liberals so that they would not oppose the US extradition case. Monbiot could have added that the Guardian was wrong not to apologise for the deceitful, malicious report and retract it.

Or Monbiot could tell his readers that the Guardian is not declaring a glaring conflict of interest in its coverage of the Assange hearings. Rather than being a neutral observer of developments, the paper is, in fact, deeply implicated in the very charges levelled by the US against Assange. Its former investigations editor David Leigh was the one who recklessly published the password to a critically important trove of secret documents held by Wikileaks, giving every security service in the world access to them. Eventually, in a damage limitation operation, Wikileaks was forced to publish the files unredacted to let anyone named know they were in danger.

If anyone should be on trial for endangering US informants – no one should be, and no informants were harmed – it is not Assange but Leigh and other senior Guardian editors.

All of these would be highly “original” things for Monbiot to write about that would undoubtedly “expand the field”. But I am not really suggesting that he go so far as to be honest about the vile role played by his employer in selling out Assange. I am worldly enough to know how things work. He has a good, mainstream platform that weekly publishes his articles – and he does not want to jeopardise that by criticising his own newspaper.

But, of course, Monbiot does not need to criticise the Guardian to support Assange. There are plenty of other, important things to write about if he chooses to. The point is he chooses not to. The real question, once his pathetic excuses are stripped away, is why.

Mopped up by the Guardian

And that, sadly, is because Monbiot is not the free thinker, the fearless investigator of difficult truths, the left-wing conscience he claims to be. It is not really his fault. It is in the nature of the function he serves at the Guardian – and with which I am only too familiar myself from my years working there.

The Guardian is the main outlet of the Guardian Media Group, which depends on advertising to survive. It is a corporate venture premised on exploiting the Guardian’s market share to the greatest extent possible, just as the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the Times do with their own markets. In this regard, newspapers are no different from supermarkets. If they fail to corner their section of the market, another corporation better suited to do so will step in and seize it from them.

Assange understood this only too well, as he explained in an interview back in 2011 after learning that the Guardian had been breaking its agreements with Wikileaks and sharing confidential files with others. He observed:

What drives a paper like the Guardian or New York Times is not their inner moral values. It is simply that they have a market. In the UK, there is a market called “educated liberals”. Educated liberals want to buy a newspaper like the Guardian and therefore an institution arises to fulfill that market.

Most of the Guardian’s writers pander squarely to the general “educated liberals” market. But some, like Monbiot, are there with a more specific purpose: to mop up sections of the population that might otherwise stray from the Guardian fold.

Owen Jones is there to mop up left-wing supporters of the Labour party to persuade them that the Guardian is their friend, as he continued to do even while the paper was helping to destroy the party’s elected leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Jonathan Freedland is there, in part, to reassure liberal Jews that the Guardian is on their side, which he did by playing up the evidence-free smears that Labour had an especial antisemitism problem under Corbyn. Hadley Freeman is there, as are others like Suzanne Moore, to represent liberal women deeply invested in identity politics and to make sure they keep them away from class politics.

The point is that the Guardian is a corporate endeavour that makes sure its columnists cover as many liberal-left bases as possible without allowing any really subversive voices a platform from which they can challenge or disrupt the neoliberal status quo.

Monbiot, therefore, treads the finest line of all the Guardian’s columnists. His position is the most absurd, the one plagued with the biggest internal contradiction: he must sell extreme environmental concern from within a newspaper that is entirely embedded in the economic logic of the very neoliberal system that is destroying the planet.

The Guardian understands its own urgent need to greenwash too. Its market, educated liberals, are increasingly frightened by the multiple environmental threats we face, which is why very belatedly – decades late, in fact – the paper has been prioritising this issue above all others.

But, of course, given the logic of its corporate, money-making, advertiser-driven agenda, the Guardian is not just highlighting the threat to the environment to win over more educated liberals. It is also monetising this threat for itself as aggressively as it can. It did so again this week as its editor, Kath Viner, appealed to educated liberals to make a subscription donation to the paper based on the claim that it will campaign to protect the environment better than any other UK newspaper. That, of course, is a remarkably low bar it has set for itself.

Treading a fine line

Monbiot is trapped in this same logic: campaigning for the environment from within an organisation whose economic imperatives are designed to trash the planet.

He treads this very fine line by deviating as little as necessary from the Guardian’s own narrow, status quo-hugging agenda. He enjoys the freedom to speak out loudly on the dangers of environmental destruction, but that freedom comes at a price – that he closely adhere to the technocratic, liberal consensus on other issues. The paradox is that on foreign policy matters we have Monbiot effectively colluding in the propaganda of the west’s war industries – the most polluting on the planet – as he professes his environmental credentials to the Guardian’s liberal readers.

This stance is not imposed on him. He does not receive orders from Guardian editors to smear OPCW whistleblowers or to restrain himself from tweeting forthright support for Assange. Instead he has imbibed the corporate culture of the Guardian – as I once did, as most of us do in our daily lives – as a sanity survival strategy, as way to placate the cognitive dissonance that would overwhelm him if he did not.

Paradoxically, the two excuses he offered justifying his lack of support for Assange followed a tweet in which he had just castigated the left – as he is wont to do when confronted with evidence he would rather not hear – for preferring conformity over solidarity.

I’m no psychologist, but this sounds suspiciously like projection to me. Monbiot was immediately and rightly pulled up by followers who pointed out that, in his abandonment of Assange, he had once again shown a high degree of conformity to official, intelligence agency-serving narratives, as well as to those of his employer, the Guardian. He had also shown a very low degree of solidarity with a man who has almost single-handedly taken on the western power establishment in the hope of helping us finally to hold it to account.

Ultimately, the problem lies not with Monbiot. He is just serving the market, attracting socially responsible liberals to the Guardian, rationalising the paper’s reformist agenda within a suicidal, global, neoliberal economy, and preventing left-wingers from straying too far, to the point where they might contemplate a more revolutionary form of politics.

The problem lies not with Monbiot. It lies with us. We continue to ignore the fact that we are being played by the system, that we are being placated by pale offerings like Monbiot, that our consent is needed and that we keep finding reasons to give it rather than withdraw it. Neither Monbiot nor the Guardian is going to liberate our minds. Only we can do that.

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Assange’s Sixteenth Day at the Old Bailey: Special Administrative Measures, Unreliable Assurances and Espionage

September 29.  Central Criminal Court, London.

Julian Assange’s defence team spent the day going over, reemphasising and sharpening the focus on what awaited their client should he, with the blessing of Her Majesty’s Government, make his way to the United States.  Not only will he confront 17 charges under the US Espionage Act and one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, he faces the prospect of imprisonment for the rest of his life in conditions that risk prematurely ending his life.

Warden Baird and SAMs

The opening expert witness was Maureen Baird, who knows a thing or two about US carceral fare, having presided over the Metropolitan Correctional Centre in New York as its warden.  She was in little doubt that Assange will be subjected to Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) over and above those conditions he will already face.  She thought the affidavit by US Assistant Attorney Gordon Kromberg gave a good clue of that intention: the government tends to only mention SAMs if they intend using them.

While the US Attorney General will be the one to make that determination, advice will be sought from relevant security agencies.  “It could be the CIA, the FBI, border control, together with the US Attorney and the Attorney General,” came Baird’s reply to defence barrister Edward Fitzgerald QC.  Were the CIA to be involved, they would be consulted “with the office of enforcement operations at the DOJ [Department of Justice].”  With the CIA’s view carrying hefty weight, Fitzgerald tantalisingly floated a proposition to be revisited later in the day: that US intelligence was behind targeting Assange while he was a political asylee of the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

Baird’s description of inmates placed under SAMs was grim and similar to the testimony of Yancey Ellis delivered the day before: “solitary confinement, technically, for 24-hours a day”.  No communication with other inmates.  “The only form of human interaction they encountered was when correctional officers opened the viewing slot during their inspection rounds of the unit, when institution staff walked through the unit during their required weekly rounds, or when meals were delivered through the secure meal slot in the door.”

Inmates were allowed 30 minutes on the phone per month (one call of 30 minutes duration, or two of 15 minutes), with all calls scheduled two weeks in advance and monitored by the FBI.  Mail, heavily screened, could take months to be delivered. (In this, Baird rejected the optimistic description by Kromberg that the mail service was “free-flowing” in such facilities.)

As with other witnesses already called, including Joel Sickler of the Justice Advocacy Group, she agreed that SAMs were singularly “devastating,” “desolate and degrading”.  Such measures could lead to “severe depression in isolation, anxiety, paranoia, weight loss detrimental to physical health and detrimental to mental health.”  She thought them brutal and archaic, a relic of cruelty.  “I am uncertain how the [US Bureau of Prisons] has been able to continue with these types of isolation units, given all the studies, reports and findings of the horrific physical and psychological effects they have on inmates.”

Challenging SAMs was also an adventurous, generally futile hope.  “Mr Kromberg suggested that when an inmate has a twice a year review he can challenge SAMs with a case manager, but as a case manager myself,” Baird explained to the court, “I saw nothing is going to happen.”  Case managers lacked “authority to make any changes to SAMs.”  As was further explained, the Bureau of Prisons “exercises no control/jurisdiction over SAMs imposed by the Attorney General.  Wardens are bound to abide by the SAMs imposed on an inmate.”  During her time as Warden at MCC New York, Baird had “never seen an inmate have his SAMs removed, only extended.”

The former warden was also certain that Assange, if convicted, would be destined for the ADX Florence supermax facility in Colorado.  If placed under SAMs, he would be kept in a segregating housing unit at the ADX.  “As someone who spent the majority of her adult life working for the BOP and as a former Designator, who decided where inmates would serve their sentences, absent a medical requirement, or a protected Witness Security Case, I am not familiar with any alternative long-term options aside from the ADX, for offenders under SAMs.”

As for the sparkling portrayal of the ADX in Colorado given by Kromberg’s affidavits, including the presence of social and therapeutic activities for inmates, Baird could only express bemusement.  “For anyone to suggest that an inmate assigned under SAMs would be able to participate in group counselling is baffling to me.  The main premise of assigning SAMs is to restrict a person’s communication and the only way to accomplish this is through isolation.”

Medical treatment was also a scrappy, unreliable affair for SAMs prisoners. You would have to be at death’s door before being transferred to a medical facility.  As for those at risk of self-harm, Baird accepted that the BOP had a robust suicide program, which was hardly a guarantee against the determined.  “When you have suicidal ideation, the reliance on inmate self-reporting is pretty strong.  When an inmate fails to report that, it is not noticed and the inmate commits suicide.”

In cross-examination, prosecutor Clair Dobbin played an unaccustomed role: the bleeding heart, concerned with prisoner welfare.  Why had Baird not done more to ease the plight of SAMs prisoners during her time as warden?  Baird replied that leading by example was her method, not that she could compel other staff to do the same.  “It was not uncommon for staff not to engage with inmates.”  While she had not taken the issue of treatment of SAMs prisoners up with a judge or the BOP, she rejected Dobbin’s assertions that she lacked concern for them.  Baird’s reasoning was that of an instrument of state violence self-justified. “It did cause me concern, but I had to convince myself it was okay.  I honestly did not believe I could do anything. It was [handled] at a higher level.”

Dobbin then suggested that SAMs inmates could alter their conditions by participating in a three phase program.  They could meet in groups of four in an area outside their cell on reaching the third level.  Baird refuted the suggestion: Phase one and two did give extra privileges to the prisoners, but they remained in isolation.  It had nothing to do with the actual removal of SAMs.  Permitting inmates to reach the third level would defeat “the whole purpose of SAMs.”

The prosecution then drew upon a statement from prosecution witness Alison Leukefeld, an employee of the US Bureau of Prisons claiming, in line with Kromberg’s affidavits, that SAMs prisoners would have chances to engage in group therapy. Baird was dismissive in reply: “I think she does not have much experience with SAMs inmates and is not out in the field.”

Lindsay Lewis, Abu Hamza and false assurances

The calling of US attorney Lindsay Lewis was important in her link to Abu Hamza al-Masri (Mostafa Kamel Mostafa), an Egyptian radical cleric and former imam of London’s Finsbury Park mosque extradited to the United States in 2012 after an eight-year legal battle.  He was accused of a suit of offences ranging from attempting to establish a terrorist training camp in Bly, Oregon to supporting terrorists in Afghanistan and kidnapping 16 tourists in Yemen in 1998.  Hamza also faced the SAMs regime, kept in solitary confinement for eight years and imprisoned at the ADX Florence since 2015.  He has not been allowed family visits since 2012.

As Lewis outlined in her witness statement, SAMs have limited Hamza’s “contacts not just with the outside world, but also with his family, other inmates and even his attorneys.”  With a Kafkaesque twist, such restrictions went so far as to hamper her own means of describing his true conditions to the court.

An example of the harsh absurdities of these administrative measures was also given: Hamza was said to have breached them when he “improperly tried to convey, in a letter to one of his sons, his love to his one year old grandson”. The grandson had not been on the list of approved contacts.

Hamza’s case is gruesomely remarkable for its false assumptions.  According to Lewis, assurances were given to the United Kingdom by US authorities that future prison facilities would be tailored to his fragile medical state.  Were he to spend time at ADX Florence, it would only be for a short time.  District Judge Timothy Workman of the Westminster Magistrates’ Court, in ruling for Hamza’s extradition in 2007, noted that a lengthy, indefinite period of detention at ADX Florence would result in “inhuman degrading treatment” in violation of Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture.  He also considered ADX Florence to have conditions “offensive to my sense of propriety of dealing with prisoners”.

Nothing of the sort, claimed prosecutor Dobbin in her cross-examination of Lewis, who read a declaration by a warden that Hamza would face a medical examination and go to a medical facility if he was incapable of managing his activities of daily living (ADL).  Of unflagging faith in the virtues of those she represents and the US justice system, Dobbin claimed that, “There was no way they could have found he could have managed his activities of daily living either pre-trial or post-trial.”

Such credulity was impressive.  The UK authorities had assumed that it was “impossible” for a double amputee, one functional eye and suffering diabetes to pass a medical exam on his fitness for detention at ADX Florence.  “I am satisfied,” Judge Workman declared at the time, “that the defendant [Hamza] would not be detained in these conditions [at ADX] indefinitely, and his undoubted ill-health and physical disabilities would be considered, and at worst, he would only be accommodated in these conditions for a relatively short period of time.”  Lewis observed that Hamza, having had both forearms amputated, was a fairly obvious qualification against being sent to the ADX.  “I don’t believe the US government has followed through on him receiving a full medical examination.”

Dobbin, ever the believer, wondered if Lewis was simply too trusting of Hamza.  “He is a double amputee,” came the reply.  “He does not have daily nursing care four times a day as he had in the UK.  He is placed in a handicapped cell that does not have proper shower and toilet facilities.”

In 2018, one of Hamza’s lawyers issued a statement asserting “that the conditions of his confinement violate the expectations of the European Convention on Human Rights and the promises that were made by the US government to the [British and European] courts as part of the extradition process.”  By comparison, the conditions at Belmarsh, a facility Assange is well acquainted with, were notably better.  Horror comes in degrees.

Anonymous witnesses, espionage and the CIA

In anticipation of Thursday’s proceedings, the court also considered whether it should grant anonymity to two witnesses from the UC Global S.L. security firm, the Spanish company charged with providing security at Ecuador’s London embassy.  Their testimony, scheduled to be read that day, is intended to draw the political line between UC Global, their espionage activities targeting Assange in the London Ecuadorean Embassy, and the CIA.  UC Global’s director David Morales, is alleged in reports to have travelled to Las Vegas in 2017, where he secured a contract with Las Vegas Sands of the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a notable financier of US President Donald Trump.  It is claimed that Morales handed over audio and video recordings of meetings Assange had with his lawyers and associates while in the embassy.

Having already testified in a Spanish court case against Morales under protection, and fearing for their safety should their names be disclosed at the Old Bailey, Judge Vanessa Baraitser relented.  We also await how the prosecution will deal with their potentially juicy testimony.  James Lewis QC has yet to receive instructions from the DOJ on whether to mount a challenge, given the less than impervious “Chinese Wall” that supposedly exists between agencies such as the DOJ and the CIA.  That comforting fiction is designed to prevent politicisation.  It is one that this trial has already done a good deal to expose and scuttle.

The post Assange’s Sixteenth Day at the Old Bailey: Special Administrative Measures, Unreliable Assurances and Espionage first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Assange’s Fourteenth Day at the Old Bailey: Elections, Cracking Passwords and Failures of Proof

September 25.  Central Criminal Court, London.

On this Friday, the Assange trial moved into the rarefied realm of computer hacking and the less than rarefied world of when final arguments will be made.  The WikiLeaks publisher is confronting the prospect of extradition to the United States for 17 charges under the US Espionage Act and one under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The defence first pushed for more time to prepare closing arguments.  As Edward Fitzgerald QC explained, “It seems unlikely for you to make a judgment before Nov. 3 and you would have to bear in mind that the future is uncertain.  Much of what we say about [US President Donald] Trump is because this proceeding was initiated by Trump … and some elements of the case would be worse if Trump were [re-elected].”

The arguments worked, and Judge Vanessa Baraitser found herself admitting that the election outcome was “one of the factors going into my decision.”  She agreed to granting the defence four more weeks.  “That means for your client there will be no more decision until the new year, if he appreciates that.”  A more than revealing nod that politics permeates this entire process.

The defence also attempted to confront US Assistant Attorney General Gordon Kromberg’s rosy view of the US prison system, specifically regarding the conditions of the Alexandria Detention Center, destined venue for Assange’s pre-trial time, and ADX Florence in Colorado, where he is likely to spend time if convicted.  To date, the assistant attorney has been disinclined to surrender to cross-examination.  This led Fitzgerald to attempt the submission of two defence statements to court, one from a former chief psychiatrist at the US Bureau of Prisons, another from a forensic psychiatrist well acquainted with ADX Florence.  “We have no right to cross-examine Kromberg, who can say whatever he wants and we have no right to challenge him,” submitted Fitzgerald.   “They have no right to have the right word.”  Baraitser rejected the request, feeling that enough by way of defence testimony on the US prisons in question, had been heard.

Failure to prove conspiracy

The prosecution had been less than charitable in sending the defence documents at 11.30 pm the previous night.  Such a move prompted Mark Summers QC to request Judge Vanessa Baraitser to give their witness Patrick Eller an hour to peruse the prosecution material.  Eller, chief executive of Metadata Forensics and former digital forensic examiner at the US Army Criminal Investigation Command headquarters at Quantico, had submitted his written testimony some nine months previously.  Baraitser, on this occasion, acceded to the defence.

The day was further marked by a distinct lack of historical and computer literacy.  The judicial bench seemed unblemished by an awareness of certain details of the Chelsea Manning court martial, along with its important terminology; the prosecution seemed ignorant of testimony supplied at the trial by the government’s own forensic expert.

The indictment accuses Assange of conspiring with Manning to attempt to crack a password hash drawn from a conversation on the Jabber instant messaging service.  On the surface, this reads like the basis of a narrowly crafted computer offence.  The indictment is, however, more broadly crafted, drawing upon the Espionage Act to target Assange for allegedly receiving pilfered data, including the Guantanamo Bay detainee assessment briefs, the US Department of State Cables, and the Iraq rules of engagement files.  It is alleged that “Assange knew that Manning was unlawfully taking and disclosing them, and at the time Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking the encrypted password hash [knowing] that Manning was taking and providing WikiLeaks with classified documents and records containing national defense information from classified databases.”  Both awareness, and action, become criminal ingredients.

Assange, allegedly using the name Nathaniel Frank, was asked by Manning whether he was capable of cracking a password hash containing an encrypted hash of half a password.  Manning then sent a hexadecimal string taken from her computer network.  The hash was passed on to an expert; Frank admitted to having “no luck so far” decrypting it.

Had this been possible, the prosecution claims that it would have “made it more difficult for investigators to identify Manning as the source of the unauthorised disclosures of classified information.”  Cracking the encryption would have also given Manning access to an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) user account with greater access privileges.

The grounds for the defence, fashioned by Eller’s written testimony, are two-fold: “that the alleged passcode hash conspiracy was impossible, but even if it were possible, it has no utility to what is attributed to it.”

Eller’s analysis of Manning’s court martial records was incisive.  In his assessment, Manning never supplied the two necessary files vital in reconstructing the decryption key for the pass word hash.  “At the time, it would not have been possible to crack an encrypted password hash, such as the one Manning obtained.”  What was “sent was insufficient to be able to crack the password in the way the government [has] prescribed.”

James Lewis QC for the prosecution attempted to find some agreement with Eller that Manning and Assange had “thought they could crack the password and agreed to attempt to crack it.”  The answer from Eller was not assuring.  A hash had been provided; they claimed to have “rainbow tables for it.”  (Rainbow tables being a decryption method applying different password values by means of guessing.) Nothing was ever stated on where the hash was from.

Even more troubling for the prosecution, Eller reminded Lewis that, “The government’s own expert witness in the [Manning] court martial stated that was not enough for them to actually be able to do it.”  Bruised by this reversal of fortune, Lewis could only assay a weak question.  “Are you aware Assange publicly boasted he is a fantastic hacker?”

Looming over the day’s events in thick reminder were the proceedings of the Manning court martial.  Consulting those records might have saved Lewis, and the court, some time.  Kevin Gosztola reminds us of the testimony of special agent for the Army Computer Crimes Investigating Unit, David Shaver.  On June 12, 2013, Shaver testified that the “hash value” was found in the chat, but was hardly the “full hash value”.  Major Thomas Hurley, for Manning’s defence, asked whether “the hash value included in the chat wouldn’t be enough to actually gain any passwords or user information”.  “Correct,” came Shaver’s response.

The “Nathaniel Frank” identity also proved slippery.  In re-examination, Summers dug to see if there was any evidence linking Assange to it.  None that he could see, came the reply from Eller, more than once.  The prosecution now, just as in the Manning trial, continue to scrounge for an elusive link.

With Eller’s testimony also came the seeds of doubt in the prosecution’s conspiracy charge.  Manning had, “[r]outinely and in the course of work,” downloaded the war log documents so as to have “offline backups” in the event the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNet) were it to suffer “connectivity issues”.  The SIPRNet, segregated from the internet, could be accessed from a sensitive compartmentalised information facility (SCIF).  By the time the alleged conversation with Assange took place on Jabber, Manning had already downloaded and leaked documents including the Iraq and Afghan war logs, the rules of engagement and “Collateral Murder” video and the Guantanamo detainee assessment briefs using her standard account on two secure computers.  The “documents named in the indictment that Manning sent after the alleged cracking attempt were the State Department cables,” which Manning was, in any case, authorised to access.

The US government claim that Assange made an agreement with Manning to crack a password in order to access the FTP user account collapses in a heap.  As Eller notes in his submission, “Manning already had legitimate access to all the databases from which she downloaded data.”  To log “into another user account would not have provided her with more access than she already possessed.”  It was also “unclear” to Eller “that any anonymity would be gained by cracking the password to gain access to the ftp user account.”

This was certainly relevant in terms of downloading documents passed on to WikiLeaks, as doing so would have been tracked by the army, the user identifiable by means of the IP address.  “Even if Manning was in fact logged into the ftp user account rather than her own normal account, this would have no effect on tracking,” Eller’s witness statement summarises the point.  “Merely logging into a different local user account on the computer (such as ftp user) would not anonymise Manning at all because the IP address of the computer would remain the same regardless of what user account is in use.”

Manning already had the means of accessing data via her own local computer, using a Linux CD which enabled her to read the files and bypass the security features of Windows.  Eller’s submission is sharply convincing.  “The technical impossibility of using the ftp user account to download data anonymously, combined with Manning’s past behaviour of downloading hundreds of thousands of documents from her own account, indicate that it is highly unlikely that Manning’s attempt to crack the ftp user password had anything to do with leaking documents.”

Eller’s testimony also gives an insight into how soldiers working with Manning at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq frequently took breaks to play computer games and listen to music.  Unauthorised software, stored on the T-drive of the SCIF, or on their work computers to chat, play games and music, were used.  Manning’s court martial revealed that soldiers often attempted to crack administrative passwords to gain access to such software.  As Jason Milliman, a computer engineer retained to manage laptops at the base explained, “soldiers cracked his password in order to install a program and then deleted his administrator account.”

The defence performance, in sinking the prosecution’s feeble password-cracking conspiracy with testimony drawn from the US government’s own forensic expert in the Manning trial, was impressive.  But commentators such as Gosztola fear that a degree of obsolescence specific to the computer charge has crept in.  The 2020 superseding indictment is a grab all rag bag of assertions claiming that Assange conspired with the hacktivist group LulzSec and propagandised his cause for reasons of recruiting sources in the US intelligence community as future WikiLeaks sources.  It was the sort of material that should have been excised from the extradition proceedings, but Judge Baraitser refused.  Show trials must have their scripts doctored for the occasion.

The post Assange’s Fourteenth Day at the Old Bailey: Elections, Cracking Passwords and Failures of Proof first appeared on Dissident Voice.