Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Madeleine McCann Factor

This week is the 5 year anniversary of the disappearance of  British toddler Madeleine McCann in Portugal, an event which the BBC is climbing onto with a Panorama program dedicated to the subject. Today the Metropolitan Police displayed a computer-generated image of what Madeleine McCann would look like aged 9 after disappearing on holiday in Portugal in 2007. But why does this little girl, sad as here continuing disappearance is, keep appearing in the news so many years after she was last seen? Does this ongoing story demonstrate certain things about the way our media system works?
Firstly, I think there is a certain image factor that must be considered. Disappearing children is hardly international news worthy (though maybe it should be). The Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre show that in '2009/10 there were an estimated 360,000 missing persons incidents, of which approximately 230,000 (64%) related to a child under 18,' and that is just in the UK alone. While many of these children are found and returned home safely, that leaves many thousands of cases unresolved. However, to gain interest and traction on an otherwise routine story news companies require the right image to sell it. The pictures of a very cute little girl with blond hair and a cheeky smile was perfect to tug on the heartstrings of people all round the world and boost their ratings to boot. Another example of this image creation would be Phoenix the calf who, having been part of a herd culled to prevent the spread of Foot and Mouth disease was picked up as a news symbol and became the image of a national campaign.
Secondly there was the location of the disappearance. It is probably true that hundreds of children go missing in the urban jungles of London, Manchester, Glasgow or any other major city with few people noticing or caring overly much about them. The fact that Madeleine disappeared from a holiday apartment in sunny Portugal, a popular holiday destination for many families, combining glorious weather with low cost and short-haul flights. It added a sense of drama and spine-tingling horror to the story with news outlets glorifying in the fact that so many British tourists go to the same area.
A third cause for the longevity of this story and it's Lazarus-like ability to keep returning to the news of the day is the McCann family itself. Placing their considerable input behind the case they refused to accept any loss of importance or impetus. While I'm sure that any loving family would put as much time and money into finding a missing child, it may be that the McCann family had advantages in both. The parents especially Madeleine's mother, managed to keep their faces on the TV and their calls for information in the headlines a long time after most news would have died away. Created a slick media and policy outfit they achieved continuous stories which have popped up in the five years since that sad day. When the police, both in the UK and Portugal seemed to be failing, the McCann family hired private investigators to take up the slack and producing another slue of media stories.
While the story is incredibly sad and all attempts should be made to find out what happened to Madeleine McCann it is also a highly interesting media story that has outlasted almost any other. This is not just down to the location of the disappearance or the amount of money and time the McCann family could put behind the case, it is also down to the images which, used by the media to gain interest, allowed a unremarkable story to stick in the nations consciousness and elicit the continuing interest.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


I really really really don't like the English Defence League. Probably the first thing you should know really. They are a bunch of crazy, extremist, pseudo-political bullies who need to learn to live in a decent society. In short it means that I always enjoy a god laugh at their expense when one comes along, and oh blimey did that happen today!
The founder of the EDL, Tommy Robinson, tweeted this amazing piece of vomit when faced with a picture of the Taj Mahal as the Twitter background:

welcome to twitter homepage has a picture of a mosque. what a joke #creepingsharia

By this he is insinuating that Twitter is being taken over by those evil Muslim people because the Taj Mahal is a Mosque. As anyone with even half a brain (or google?) would know the Taj Mahal has nothing to do with Islam and is in fact a Mausoleum from, if anything, Hinduism.

This made me laugh for a bit until I started seeing the reaction on Twitter. Thousands upon thousands of jokes immediately started all with the hashtag #creepingsharia. These ranged from:

Muslamic bloke walked past on tiptoes #creepingsharia

to the brilliant:

You can't say EDL without saying "Eid" #creepingsharia

I find this brilliant and it restored my faith that the majority of people still find the EDL a figure of fun and, considering the apparent intellect of it's founder, there is a lot to make fun of.
However, on a more serious point, we have to be watchful of all extremist beliefs, just in case. Look at Breivik in Norway! An extreme case but one with a warning to us all...

Source for info and quotes:

The Lone Wolf

              One of the biggest news stories of the last few days has been the trial of the right-wing mass-murderer Anders Breivik who killed 77 people using first a car bomb and then a gun assault against a political youth camp. Not too long ago the world was also shocked as a man in Toulouse repeatedly employed hit-and-run tactics in a wave of terror across the city. But why are lone wolves - people who attack without the support of a group or  conspirators - such a threat?
              Firstly because it is incredibly difficult to discover their actions before they strike and just as hard to find them afterwards. The West currently relies heavily on Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) as the major tool for discovering terrorism. But if the terrorist does not contact anyone or have previous links to suspect groups SIGINT becomes harder and harder to use effectively. In the case of Breivik in particular he is not only a home-grown terrorist but a white one at that. With so much attention paid to Islamic extremism and foreign nations entering the country, a target who does not fit the religious, ethnic or political profile is often completely missed.
               Another issue is that, partly because of the difficulties in discovering them, Lone Wolves can be immensely damaging. Terrorism, whatever it's motive, does not have to be big or costly in lives or property, it just has to be terrifying. Take 9/11 as an example; it killed around 3000 people, a relatively small number, but it's greatest effect was destroying the feeling of invulnerability surrounding most Americans belief in their countries power. Breivik may only have killed 77 and the Toulouse gunman even less but it is the fear that is important and it is the fear which gets political results. With the general ease of obtaining or creating simple weapons any person, be they a right-wing nationalist like Breivik or a religious fundamentalist or anything else, can employ terror to change the world around them. Fear of the unknown, of the hidden, of the violent is far easier to create than it is to find and stop and therefore a much worse prospect for society than large-scale attacks which are easier to find than to stop once they are in motion.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Syria - The Big Question

            As violence appears to rage unabated in Syria and the Damascus government creeps and slithers around it's responsibilities under the Kofi Annan peace deal, things may be coming to a head. With shelling and attacks continuing in Homs, Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and Damascus, it seems clear that without a sudden and unexpected change in direction, the Syrian government is continuing it's brutal repression of activists and the Free Syrian Army. This then begs the question: 'if Annan's peace plan has failed, what is next for the international community?'
             The responsibility to do anything falls primarily, though not entirely, on the shoulders of the UN and the Arab League along with interested parties such as NATO and neighbours Turkey and Iran. A wide range of interventions and policy options are available to these actors and unified action may be the only way to bring this mess to some kind of conclusions.
             On the non-interventionist end, there is simple quarantine. A harsh measure, it must however be considered as a viable option. In the UN Security Council both Russia and China are staunchly anti-intervention in their opinions and a lack of will or ability may overshadow the choices of the remaining members. Similarly, the Arab League has it's own problems to worry about; with so many states coming out of the revolutions of the Arab Spring any large scale intervention would have to be led by a small number of its members (such as Saudi Arabia) and such unilateral sacrifice is unlikely.
            Turkey and Iran currently form a precarious balancing act of non-intervention (Turkey in support of the rebels and and Iran supporting Damascus) and any move by either party could bring two of the Middle East's major powers into confrontation. Therefore the idea of imposing sanctions and a wall of conflict interdiction may be a possible solution. Turkey has already had violence spread across its border following the trail of thousands of refugees; a military buffer zone is an easy solution. Quarantine would also work for the UNSC and other international bodies - hard enough to look good to the domestic audience without having to commit manpower or money for extended periods of time.
              On the entirely opposite end of the spectrum is full scale military involvement, probably following a similar vein as the earlier successful mission in Libya. Involved parties (Turkey, NATO, the UN or the League)   could push arms to the Free Syrian Army while using air and naval power to dominate the Syrian military. Cost effective, easy to extract from and generally low risk to personnel, this seems the best option from the point of view of the international actors. However, the likelihood of this being done is limited at best. Russia, one of Syria's greatest allies, would automatically veto any attempt to overthrow a friendly government in the UNSC and China would probably concur though on less nepotist grounds. Russia would also feature heavily in the decisions of NATO - attacking the ally of a dubious and powerful neighbour may not be a wise choice.
               While intervention may be the most humanitarian and even moral option, at the moment it seems unlikely. While their are a great number of choices in the grey area between the two extremes outlined above (economic sanctions, arms running, limited incursion) it seems that, for the moment at least the international community may not want to get too heavily involved in the political and military quagmire that is the Syrian civil war. Yes, they will voice their disgust and outrage frequently and loudly but in the end it is arguable that they will always ere on the side of caution.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


Today I saw this piece on Somalis condemning the move by Sierra Leone to deploy the first batch of AMISOM peacekeepers to join the forces of Uganda and Burundi on the ground in Somalia.

          Lumping the AMISOM forces in with those of Ethiopia and Kenya, it attacks this move as yet another invasion of Somalia. There are many things wrong which such an idea some of which I feel need to be pointed out. Firstly, this lumping together does not help anyone and is difficult to substantiate. Ethiopia and Kenya (though now nominally under AMISOM command) did invade Somalia and, whatever their aims or motives this will always be the case. On the other hand AMISOM is controlled not only by the AU but by the UN with strict rules governing it's actions. Even if you do not believe that these institutions are  there to help Somalia there is the simple fact that AMISOM could not hope to occupy or control territory with the number of men under it's command. It would be swiftly defeated, if not only by Somali forces but by the international community as well.
           Secondly, it must be remembered that Sierra Leone has had it's fair share, both of civil war and foreign troop occupation. After a horrific war broke out between the government and a collection of nasty rebel groups headed by the infamous RUF the country saw intervention from Executive Outcomes (a private military company formed of mainly UK and South African ex-special forces), the United Kingdom and the United Nations. Not only does Sierra Leone harbour no real ambitions that would damage Somalia it is mildly insulting for such accusations of invasion to be made.
         The fear of invasion is an issue that must be swiftly resolved before the issue gets out of hand. There is no clear way out of the political mess represented by Somalia but the last thing that is needed is infighting between Somalis and those of the AU who are there to try and help. The worst outcome of this perhaps is that the international community will move on to focus on another problem and leave Somalia to what would almost certainly be another protracted period of civil war.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

How Words Can Change The World (For The Worse)

During the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries the fear of witches stalked Europe and North America. Thousands of innocent men and  women were denounced and executed by the Christian Church and it's quasi-secular political allies. No real proof was required and outsiders, rivals, dissidents and unfortunates were turned on, branded with a single word and because of that word were killed.
During the 20th century another word sprang into being - Communist. The same hysteria grew, the same fear that there were Commies hiding away waiting to take over and do evil things in the monarchies and republics of the Western world. The Red Scares demonstrate the fear the word created in people's minds. The first one attacked foreign immigrants, trade unionists and left-wing idealists. Fuelled by a xenophobic, sensationalist press any true threat to the US was blown out of all proportion. This led to the 1918 Sedition Act which allowed the deportation of political opponents and recent immigrants. Other legislation curtailed the freedom of speech and political action. The second, later, Red Scare fuelled fears of fifth columnists and Soviet spies in American society. Yet again, people were turned in, arrested and even deported for possible Communist ties.Huge investigations were launched inside government to grade the 'Americanism' of its employees and the new Smith Act required the registration of all foreign nations as well as criminalising any involvement with groups or individuals supporting the altering of any State by force or violence. This Act was not only deployed against possible Communists threats but also against German and Japanese Americans who were perceived to have been disloyal.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, what threat, what word, has arisen to fill this whole in public consciousness? Terrorism. The threat actually posed by Terrorism, as with magic and Communism, has been overstated and public fears have been fuelled to such a degree that the word has become a catch-all reason for huge military spending, the curtailment of civil liberties and even foreign invasion. Through the use of the symbol that Terrorism has now become the US government has allowed spying to be conducted on it's own citizens, created a huge and costly security apparatus a even legalised the detention with out trial, extradition and targeting killing of almost anyone, in almost every country just for the suspicion of Terrorism. Other states have fared no better with the UK today announcing that a new law may allow GCHQ to spy on suspects' Internet histories and emails. The word Terrorism has pushed governments to even further measures than any previous word has ever done before; it has even led to the US declaring war on it which, after the War on Drugs, is the second modern war against something a ephemeral and unquantifiable as a word.
Words have great power and great meaning loaded into them. To utter them can release huge swathes of emotion, feeling and response. Often such powerful words are uttered and great things have happened - Freedom, Equality, Justice. But, just as often such words, loaded with hate, ignorance and violence have led to terrible, horrible things happening. These are just a few examples from history but the list is huge - Jews, Blacks, Homosexuals, Slaves, Rebels, Christians, Muslims, Republicans, immigrants, Gypsies, Irish etc etc etc. People who have the ability for large numbers to hear their words must be especially careful; the casual or uninformed use of such powerful symbols can evoke huge and unimagined consequences. The curtailment of rights and freedom, arrest, persecution, violence, murder, execution, war, genocide; all of these have been practised on those labelled with a word, from Christians crucified by Roman invaders to the deaths of civilians in an attack by a US drone.We must understand the meanings that are ascribed to the words we so casually throw around without a second thought  because we might do good with our words but that is very hard when they are loaded with ignorance, intolerance and hate.