Saturday, 12 December 2015

Tyson Fury and David Cameron - where is society’s sense of proportion?

Tyson Fury, a Gypsy, has said some offensive things and has been vilified by public opinion. David Cameron, the prime minister, said a deeply offensive thing and there has been comparatively little reaction. Where is society’s sense of proportion?

I first became aware of Tyson Fury, the self-styled “Gypsy King”, last month when he won a stunning victory against the long-time champion to become the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the world.

Fury is a 6 foot 9 inch giant from Manchester. He is the son of “Gypsy” John Fury, a bare-knuckle fighter, who named him after the fearsome Mike Tyson. He had a chaotic childhood with little schooling. He is a born-again Christian with a deep belief in the truth of the Bible.

I first had contact with the Gypsy community when I was a Criminal lawyer, some 25 years ago. I observed then the terrible prejudice that Gypsies face. Police, gaolers, lawyers, sometimes even the judiciary, did not even feel the need to hide their contempt. Not much has changed: Gypsies are the most discriminated against and marginalised group in our country.

I thought it was wonderful that Tyson Fury had brought some rare success and pride to his community.

But now, Fury has been branded a sexist and a homophobe. He has faced a police enquiry (now dropped) into his alleged homophobic remarks and over 130,000 people have signed a petition demanding that the BBC ban him from their flagship BBC Sports Personality of the Year. A BBC presenter has called him a “dickhead” on air (not to his face). The Guardian’s Michael White has described him as “mouthy and opinionated in an ugly and stupid way.” The same paper’s Gaby Hinsliff says his views are repugnant and he “has already lost in every way that counts.”

Sexism and homophobia are not binary, black and white concepts. There are shades of grey. All sexism and homophobia is wrong but some is worse than others. Not all sexist and homophobes are as extreme as the King of Saudi Arabia.

Fury is a sexist. He said: - “A woman’s best place is in the kitchen and on her back”. Such crass sexist comments are often heard in men-only environments from the Garrick Club, to the Rugby Club, to the pub. That does not make them in any way acceptable, of course, but it should give people a sense of proportion.

Moments after Fury became champion, he grabbed a microphone and sung his wife a romantic love song. I thought that was lovely.

A complaint was made to the police that Fury had “incited hatred towards homosexuals” by suggesting that all homosexuals are paedophiles. This allegation has been repeated across the media. No wonder people hate Fury.

However, Fury never said what is alleged. This is what he actually said: - “There are only three things that need to be accomplished before the Devil comes home. One of them is homosexuality being legal, one is abortion being legal and the other is paedophilia being legal.”  

Fury explains his view as stemming from his reading of the Bible. Millions of religious people hold similar views. Fury told journalists that his views are the same as the Pope’s. By all means attack the homophobia found in religion, but when attacking Fury for those same views, people need a sense of proportion.

Fury has defended himself vehemently. He denies sexism and homophobia. He has said: - “I don’t think gay people are paedophiles. Two adults consenting to love each other is a different matter to someone messing with a child.” 

When offensive remarks are made, it obviously matters who makes them. Fury is a boxer, not a headteacher, CEO or prime minister.

And in all the fury over Fury’s comments, people have ignored the fact that while some of his views deserve criticism, others deserve praise. 

From Fury’s own words, found online, he comes across as intelligent, intense and interesting. 

Fury is fiercely proud of his family and his community. He wants to do some good in the world in areas where he has seen so many lives blighted  - alcoholism, drug addiction and homelessness. He talks frankly about his own sometimes suicidal depression. And he talks a great deal about his belief in the Bible.

For me, the most striking thing that Fury says - many times - is his disdain for the material trappings of “success”.  Here are some typical quotes.

“…if we just were born to die for 70 years or 90 or 15 or 20, then what is the point of being born in the beginning. What is it for? To buy a house and a car and get old and die? For me, that would be a pointless life lived…you get caught up in worldly things i.e. wanting, wanting, wanting all the time. Throughout history…if a man had a billion, he’d want 10 billion. …When is enough enough?”

“My be all and end all is passing through here, trying to do a few good things on the way, helping people….It ain’t about winning the title for me…it’s not about all that sort of stuff and what they think success is. People think success is being rich and driving nice cars and being Mr Flash. Success isn’t that.” 

Sports journalist Barney Ronay writes: - “Success now is unlikely to change a relatively humble lifestyle….Fury can be, according to those who know him, a hospitable, gentle, funny, talkative, slightly disarming presence.”

Compare Tyson Fury with one of his opponents for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Lewis Hamilton, the Formula 1 world champion. Hamilton - “perfect” and bland - never expresses an opinion on anything and lives in tax exile enjoying the material rewards of success. Who is the better role model? 

Meanwhile, as I wrote last week, David Cameron called anyone who opposed his plan to bomb in Syria a “terrorist sympathiser”. That is similar to calling them traitors. And Cameron is the prime minister, not a boxer.

If as a society we had a proper sense of proportion, the front pages and the news on TV and radio should have been carrying powerful demands for the prime minister to withdraw such a gross slur and never repeat it again. 

But the media failed to understand how serious Cameron’s words were. And, anyway, they were busy attacking the Gypsy. Where is society’s sense of proportion?

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Some things in politics are much more important than party politics

Sport is “all about winning”, they say. But even in a brutal sport like boxing, there are rules. If the boxer you support, hits below the belt or bites off a part of the opponent’s ear, then only the most tunnel-visioned fan would celebrate their “victory”.

Politics is a brutal game too but again there are rules. However, there is no referee. The rules are supposed in theory to be enforced in this country by “civil society”. A vital part of a properly functioning civil society is a media which should expose breaches of the rules and through its immense power of communication enforce compliance.

Last week, the prime minister flagrantly breached the rules of acceptable behaviour in our democracy by calling those who opposed his plan to bomb in Syria, “terrorist sympathisers”. He refused many times to apologise on the floor of the Commons. Such an accusation goes well beyond the normal, robust hurling of political insults. 

David Cameron’s comment is reminiscent of those of the vile, bullying Senator Joseph McCarthy, who - together with his followers - accused those who opposed him of being “Communist sympathisers”. 

McCarthy operated during the Cold War. Cameron uses his McCarthyite slur during the War on Terror. When a powerful person accused opponents of sympathising with enemies of the State, they are telling others that they should discount arguments of those opponents because they are made from traitorous motives. 

Very few in our media seem to grasp how destructive to our political system Cameron’s remarks are. They seem to be quite unable to view politics other than through the prism of party politics. 

After five long years of McCarthy striking fear throughout American society in the early 1950s, it was a TV journalist, Edward  R Murrow who played a crucial role in his downfall. That took moral courage of a high order. McCarthy had destroyed many people’s careers and worse.

Where in our media do we see a Murrow today?

Cameron has disgracefully and dangerously broken the rules of the political game and it is difficult to see who there is in our civil society who will do anything about it.

The situation is both depressing and very troubling. 

Some things in politics are much more important than party politics.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Questions for Cameron on bombing in Syria

We are fourteen years into a War on Terror and there is no end in sight. 

Since 9/11, the West has undertaken military activity against Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen and Mali.

It should not be controversial to suggest the West considers a new approach. The old one based on military action is not working.

Tomorrow, David Cameron will ask for the support of parliament to bomb so-called Islamic State in Syria. He argues that this will make people in the UK safer.

Jeremy Corbyn, who is not a pacifist but does believe that military action should be a last resort, will oppose Cameron. Corbyn does not deny the serious threat from IS. He argues that there are no good reasons to believe that the proposed military action will make people in the UK safer. On the contrary, it may make people less safe.

Corbyn thinks there is some link between the cause of terrorist attacks in the UK and Western attacks on Muslims abroad. Cameron seems to deny that there is any link at all. Those who share Corbyn’s view are often attacked as “apologists” but this is absurd - people should be able to distinguish between an explanation and a justification. 

Here are some questions that I believe Cameron should answer tomorrow.

  1. US, Russia and France are already bombing Raqqa, where IS have their headquarters. What have they achieved and what would the UK add?
  2. As the 7/7 bombers and most of those who carried out the Paris outrage, were “homegrown”, how will the bombing lessen the chance of a jihadi attack in the UK?
  3. Counter-radicalisation measures in the UK deny any link between jihadi attacks against the West and Western military action against Muslim countries. Does this not seriously undermine their likely effectiveness?
  4. He speaks of Assad’s “mass murder of his own people”. How is it intended to ensure that by attacking IS he does not strengthen Assad?
  5. What steps is he taking in relation to the funding of IS, including by private donors in Saudi Arabia? 
  6. It is widely agreed that ground troops will be needed. Does he categorically rule out sending UK troops? He has spoken of there being 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters who do not belong to extremist groups and who could be involved. What is the evidence for the existence of such a force?
  7. What lessons has he learnt from his own action in Libya? At the time he hailed it as a triumph but in fact it left a country gripped by anarchy and civil war and allowed jihadi to operate there whereas they had not so before.
  8. In light of the shooting down of the Russian plane by Turkey and the fact that the sky over Raqqa will be very crowded, what steps will be taken to prevent accidents?

I would be surprised if such questions were not asked. I hope they get proper answers.

This is not a left/right issue. Some of the most impressive Tory MPs intend to vote against Cameron. Some of them have demanded a free vote on the Tory side, as there will be on the Labour side. 

Cameron’s case looks weak. I am not convinced that it is really about saving lives on British streets. It looks more like a political, cultural, diplomatic desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US and France. That is not a bad reason if everything else makes sense - unfortunately, it does not look like it does.