cunt-2The decision of the ‘Newsnight’ production team and presenters to take an early holiday as of last Friday seemed to suggest 2016 had finished slinging shit at the world; paid vacations for BBC freeloaders doesn’t mean the most unpleasant twelve months in living memory has completed its catalogue of carnage, however, as yesterday’s events both in the centre and on the fringes of Europe indicated in the worst possible way. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in full view of TV cameras, swiftly followed by another horrible massacre – this time on the streets of a city with its fair share of past atrocities, Berlin – confirmed this year’s obituaries have been prematurely penned.

Not dissimilar to the gruesome scenes that accompanied the murder of Lee Rigby three years ago, the brazen pride in the killer of Andrei Karlov as he waved his weapon and ranted whilst the dying ambassador lay at his feet was an irredeemably ugly exhibition that suggested the secular constitution of Turkey isn’t merely under threat from the country’s dictatorial President Erdogan. The assassin, disconcertingly dressed like an extra from ‘Reservoir Dogs’, was apparently a serving police officer who quickly met the same fate as the man he shot in the back once Turkish security forces gate-crashed the incongruous surroundings of the Ankara art gallery where the murder took place.

Turkey has been a tense nation (to put it mildly) since the failed coup several months ago, but the ongoing crisis in Syria has added to the strained relations between the Turks and the Russians; lest we forget, it was only a year ago that a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey on the border with Syria. As Syria is on Turkey’s doorstep, a leader who makes no bones about his religious leanings, not to mention having purged the police, armed forces and judiciary of his enemies, is hardly in a position to dissuade his underlings from expressing similar beliefs with the kind of violent force Russia has unsurprisingly labelled ‘terrorism’.

Barely had the international community had the chance to react to that awful act before news began breaking of the latest slaughter of civilians on a European street. Echoing appalling events in Nice last July, the same method of murder was employed in an effort to maximise the body count, i.e. a lorry ploughing pedestrians down. Mercifully, the numbers killed at the Berlin Christmas Market were far lower than the 89 in France, but the incident will no doubt place further pressure upon Frau Merkel and her benign approach to immigration on the eve of a General Election in Germany, not to mention gifting Madame le Pen a fresh batch of headlines rich in exploitative potential when she prepares to sell herself to France’s own electorate next year.

Neither incident yesterday has yet to be connected to ISIS or any other Middle Eastern paramilitary organisation with a grudge against the west, though the one in Berlin does bear all the hallmarks. Mevlut Mert Altintas, the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, had included the words ‘Syria’ and ‘Aleppo’ in his post-assassination rant as well as the popular Radical Islam catchphrase ‘Allahu Akbar’, yet his actions seem more reflective of anti-Assad, anti-Russia/pro-Syrian Rebel Forces protests in Turkey over the days leading up to the murder rather than any suggestions of ISIS sympathies. Nevertheless, all major European cities are on high alert again, anticipating sleeper cells being triggered into action by news from Berlin in particular.

If 2016 has taught us anything it’s that all the worst bits of 2015 have simply been taken to the next level, and there’s little evidence that 2017 will see any improvement. Those keen to see the back of this year will probably find next year just as gloomy, but to turn Harold Macmillan’s trademark sound-bite on its head and say we’ve never had it so bad is to betray an ignorance of the past. The world has been here before, but I suppose to anyone born after, say, 1985, the current global turmoil is unprecedented within that short lifetime.

On a trivial, mildly inconvenient level, the concerns that claim tabloid column inches such as train and postal strikes were considerably more far-reaching forty-odd years ago. In the case of Southern Rail’s ongoing chaos, a nationalised railway industry would have seen the entire nationwide workforce come out in solidarity with their London colleagues and the whole country would have been affected over the Christmas holidays rather than just the capital and its Metroland commuter belt. But I wouldn’t expect people who weren’t even a twinkle in the milkman’s eye in 1974 to grasp that fact. Equally, the Daily Mail mindset that is forever lecturing those struggling in a zero-hours minimum wage ghetto where owning one’s home is a pipe-dream merely shows how long some have resided in a cosseted cocoon from the harsh realities of trying to make an honest living when wages and prices are such distant bedfellows.

It would be jumping the gun to compare 2016 to other seismic shifts in the world order – 1848 being the most obvious; a degree of distance is really required in order to measure the after-effects once the dust has settled, and we’re still too in the thick of it to make neat summaries of how this or that event altered things forever thereafter. But the pace of change, and the periodic bursts of violence that have characterised the change as it has unfolded with relentless aggression would, as I pointed out in a post a few months ago, make for a cracking edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ were we lucky enough to have some decent Rock n Roll; that we’re not seems to emphasise the absence of alternatives to the grim world about us; we’ve had to make do with overgrown school-kids dressing as clowns and people playing at statues for yet another tedious selfie fad; so much for cultural salvation.

Anyway, as the previous post attracted little in the way of attention, I’m optimistic enough to put that down to people having several distractions during a time of year when there are numerous demands on their time rather than attributing it to an especially uninspiring piece of writing. With that in mind, it’s probably best if I take a few days off myself – not that I don’t expect something else characteristically awful to occur before we hit January 1; and if it does, I’ll probably be compelled to comment, whether or not anyone is listening. Merry Xmas everybody.

© The Editor


reporterWatching the dreadful deterioration of Syria on television last night, it was noticeable that on-the-spot coverage was restricted to a BBC voiceover accompanying images largely produced as propaganda by the Assad regime; the nearest BBC cameras or personnel could get to Aleppo was posting a reporter in Beirut. It reminded me that one distinct change to the way in which wars are reported today via the media – especially where the Middle East is concerned – is that the mainstream media has effectively been removed from the battlefield. Nobody with a choice would want to be in Aleppo right now, but at one time there’d always be the TV reporter on the frontline.

Indeed, when one sees footage from the likes of Vietnam or Biafra in the 60s, what seems especially striking is the fact that the men with the microphones addressing the camera look as though they’re dressed for eighteen holes in the middle of July – not even wearing a tin helmet. By the time of Iraq, awareness of health and safety (not to mention the high cost of insurance) had belatedly alerted TV companies to the dangers of bringing battles into the living room and war correspondents were fully decked-out in military gear; even that didn’t prevent the death of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd in 2003, however.

The effective model for the media war correspondent as we used to know him was William Howard Russell, the Irish journalist who famously covered the Crimean War for the Times, including the Charge of the Light Brigade. Russell’s reports from the frontline reached London courtesy of the telegraph, considerably speeding up the gap between events in ‘far-away lands’ and publication of them at home. His depictions of the realities of war were particularly significant in that the Crimea was the first military engagement on European soil that Britain had been engaged in since Waterloo, half-a-century earlier; more than one generation had been raised on the legends of the Napoleonic Wars, with distance and victory cloaking conflict in valour and glory. Advances in technology and a gifted writer portrayed war with a brutal immediacy it had never previously received in terms of public consumption.

Russell was later dispatched to other notable nineteenth century warzones in India, America, Prussia and France, setting the bar high for future war correspondents not just in the print medium, but in its eventual successor, radio. Richard Dimbleby became a household name in the UK following his moving description of the liberation of Belsen for the BBC in 1945, reaching homes on the wireless before the actual images made it to the cinema newsreels; for such a discredited profession as journalism it’s worth remembering some in that trade were prepared to risk life and limb to get their stories to the public, and this continued into the television age.

Many who later became known as desk-bound newsreaders or in-studio presenters had achieved early success as our man in dangerous locations; the likes of Michael Nicholson, John Humphrys, Jon Snow and even Michael Parkinson cut their television teeth as roving reporters, and there remained an almost noble element to the foreign correspondent if he happened to be on a rather rocky foreign field and remained determined to let us know what was happening there. Lest we forget, there were women too, and it’s certainly hard to imagine Kate Adie being allowed to broadcast from Tiananmen Square were 1989’s events taking place today.

Two crucial factors to have emerged in the last half-decade or so have changed the face of war reporting and effectively curtailed the once-pivotal role of the TV war correspondent – social media and Radical Islam.

The majority of reports to contradict the pro-Putin and Assad perspective coming out of Syria have stemmed from civilians under fire, utilising Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their own personal experience from inside the lion’s den. Bar a tiny handful of freelancers on the fringes, the traditional war correspondent has been absent from the frontline. The Arab Spring of 2011 was the first Middle Eastern event in which the people involved were able to describe what was happening as it happened, with the democratisation of digital technology giving them an instantaneous advantage over TV coverage so that the big stories had already been broken online by the participants before the western reporter even went on air. And once the Arab Spring quickly descended into dispiriting cycles of aborted revolutions, military coups and bloody civil wars, the people continued to report on them.

Whilst that could be seen as healthy competition to the more conventional methods, the increasing threat to the lives of overseas journalists present in the world’s most troubled hot-spots has undoubtedly played a more significant part in the changes. When one considers how valuable a coup capturing a western reporter has become for the likes of ISIS, it’s no wonder both broadcasters and the correspondents themselves are so reluctant to cross into enemy lines anymore. If the natives are able to articulate the reality of what is going on by directly addressing the online community, the role of the reporter in transmitting their own more detached perspective via TV can be regarded as redundant on one hand and too damned risky on the other.

The heartbreaking online testimonies of those anticipating imminent death, regardless of brief ceasefires or whichever side ‘liberates’ what remains of Aleppo, could well have called time on the war correspondent. The concept of a human tragedy relayed by an outsider-cum-tourist seems irrelevant when we’re being spoken to directly by somebody not just living on the frontline but in the firing line.

© The Editor


lewisLike it or not, cities under siege have always been a regular aspect of warfare, from Londonderry in the seventeenth century to Stalingrad and Sarajevo in the twentieth; there are countless other accidental fortresses that could be listed, but if we are to set our time machines for 2016, the city unfortunate enough to be subject to that unenviable status is Aleppo, historically Syria’s largest metropolis and one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. Archaeological records show that it has been populated since at least the 3rd millennium BC, which makes it all the more sad that one of the goons so dim that he made the other contenders in the US Presidential primaries seem like leading intellectuals didn’t even know what Aleppo was.

The constantly shifting geographical changes in the region, such as the advent of the Suez Canal in the late nineteenth century and the encroachment of Turkey into Syria following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, had somewhat isolated Aleppo whilst helping to preserve its numerous antiquities in the process. Being awarded the Islamic Capital of Culture award ten years ago underlined Aleppo’s pioneering place at the heart of ancient human civilisation, yet recent events in Syria have turned a jewel in Islam’s cultural crown into a charnel house of death and destruction that we probably won’t know the true horrific extent of until the shooting has stopped.

Different reports put the death toll of this week’s heaviest bombardment of Aleppo somewhere between 25 and 45, and that was on just the one day. Opposing sides in the conflict release contrasting figures in order to suit their own agenda, whereas even independent observers struggle to compile accurate statistics due to the chaos on the ground. Just a couple of months ago, viewers of ‘Newsnight’ were witness to a remarkable life-saving operation undertaken in an Aleppo hospital basement which was dictated via Skype by a surgeon in London, but even that level of inspired improvisation seems impossible now.

A UN envoy this week declared Aleppo risks becoming ‘one giant graveyard’ during an emergency meeting of the Security Council, yet the current carnage in Syria once again highlights the impotence and absolute inability of the UN to make any difference to the lives of those caught in the middle of a bloody conflict, just as it has failed to do throughout its seventy-year existence.

When the roll-call of casualties and fatalities in the Syrian Civil War and a comprehensive account of the bloodshed inflicted upon Aleppo are neatly compiled into a book a decade or so from now, the thousands of names lost as a consequence will melt into each other so that only the survivors will recognise them. Buried amongst the tragically anonymous will be the name of Anas al-Basha, whose death as the result of a Russian-sponsored Syrian Government airstrike on Aleppo was announced yesterday.

Anas al-Basha wasn’t one of those western gap-year gits who volunteer to work in some of the world’s trouble spots solely to add some gravitas to their CVs despite spending the majority of their time there getting pissed and generally doing bugger all to improve the situation. In contrast with some of the jokers dressing as clowns and causing a momentary moral panic both in the UK and US, al-Basha donned the same costume not to scare the shit out of strangers in some overgrown schoolboy prank, but to put a smile on the faces of the children subjected to the relentless pounding the city has received over the last few months – of which there are an estimated 100, 000.

One could be cynical and come to the conclusion that a city without any functioning hospitals and dwindling food supplies doesn’t necessarily need a home-grown volunteer clad in clown gear to inject some silliness into a nightmarish scenario; but the fact that al-Basha was prepared to stay put when 25,000 have fled, purely to bring a little cheer into lives without any at all, shows how the human instinct to laugh in the face of extreme adversity cannot even be extinguished by circumstances that would test the funny bone of the most committed comedian. What Anas al-Basha was doing was, to put it as simply as possible, something selfless and rather nice. It would have been easy (not to say understandable) had he joined the exodus from Aleppo when confronted by the kind of pounding few could tolerate on a daily basis, but he saw a way to temporarily alleviate unimaginable anguish and went for it. And now he’s dead.

At a time when words such as ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ are severely devalued by being bandied about carelessly to describe pawns in an exploitative game who shed tears on daytime TV when recalling alleged events that took place decades ago, it’s worth remembering that in the here and now there are people in the world who are making the ultimate sacrifice just for the sake of raising a smile. They don’t beg for sympathy with puppy-dog eyes and they don’t give half-a-dozen idle police forces the excuse to spurn current crimes in favour of fishing expeditions to the safe haven of the past; they do what they do because they have a heart and they place the happiness of others above their own selfish concerns. If only the serial protestors could switch their attention to the real issues instead of hysteria over trivia, perhaps Aleppo could figure higher on their radar than it currently does.

Come the Syrian Day of Judgement, one would like to think the guilty will answer for their crimes, even if the example of Nuremburg has been distilled by the slo-mo legalities of The Hague. Chances are the contributions of Anas al-Basha to the pitiful peace process probably won’t figure as an antidote to the list of atrocities on both sides, but sometimes it’s worth noting those who put their neck on the line because they came face-to-face with man’s inhumanity to man and did what they could to neutralise its appalling effect upon the next generation of extremists. We can but hope.

© The Editor