Comment: In praise of apathy: salesmen and survivors, and what two very different bomb sites can tell us about pre-Olympic London in 2012

Something I saw today got me thinking about just what it means to live in a city, and what I hate and love about it. I suspect that it’s got something to tell me about why I distrust the London 2012 cheerleading so much, but I’ll only know when this post is finished. Before I go any further, here’s what I saw.

 

It’s a replica of the V2 flying bomb, designed by Nazi rocket scientist (and later, NASA boffin) Wernher von Braun and loosed upon London in the later stages of World War Two. The V2 was the successor to the V1 ‘Doodlebug’ that caused so much damage during the Blitz. They foreshadowed the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the Cold War arms race. In terms of their role and usage, though, today’s equivalent would be the pilotless drones deployed by the US over Pakistan.

 

I see this bomb most days. But I never notice it. Today I noticed it.

 

It seemed a funny thing to bolt to the side of a building beside the elevated platform of London Bridge station. Even if (the penny dropped…) that building, from the front, is a portico for the Imperial War Museum. That, at least, explained the Union Jack hanging beside it.

 

(If you don’t live in Britain, or maybe it’s just London, I’m not sure how I can adequately convey the strangeness of seeing a British flag. There just aren’t that many of them. I’m always quietly astonished on visits to Sweden, the US, France, anywhere, at the ubiquity of their national flags. I joke with Norwegian friends about their tendency of hoisting the national flag in their front garden, on birthday cakes, atop mountains, on lorries, on branded cans of food. In case they wake up one day having forgotten where they are. They usually just smile.)

 

Anyhow, something about the bomb bothered me.

 

I’ve heard a few bombs off in my life, but only two of them were in London. I was in Greenwich when the Canary Wharf IRA bomb exploded. I heard it and saw a little of the muzz just whisp up around the tower. And I was crossing Long Acre at 9.47am on 7th July 2005, when Hasib Hussein’s backpack bomb tore apart a packed Number 30 bus in Russell Square. Bombs never make the noise you expect. They just make a very short, almost backwards sound, that goes “Dnt.” It’s definitely a weird, disappointed full-stop, not a dramatic exclamation mark. There’s none of the “Pkhkh!” reverb you hear in Hollywood movies. It’s just a stumpy, loud, compacted noise that’s over before it’s begun. Mostly, you aren’t even sure it was a bomb at first. Especially if it’s somewhere you don’t expect one. Then you hear shouts.

 

That’s when you react – and whatever you might hope, you don’t react with any of Hollywood’s dive-to-the-floor excitement either, but with a weird, disorientated, off-balance fear. Something doesn’t compute. Then you start checking what’s missing (from the landscape, the soundscape, whatever), and wondering whether to go towards or away from it. It’s not good, any of it. I can’t imagine wanting to strap the bombs I heard, or the remains of them, to the side of any tourist building on the South Bank of the Thames.

 

But there was the V2.

 

A bomb on a building. Is it there because the war it comes from is over? Because it’s sanitized by the passing years and fresher historical traumas, like a Roman battlefield or mound of flint arrowheads? Undoubtedly. OK, what about: is it there because Britain was among the victors? Is it a trophy?

 

It certainly looks that way, next to a Union flag advertising something called the Imperial War Museum – at least to a non-Briton. (It’s a credit to the curators that they’ve resisted the easy bucks of misfit patriots and nostalgists; they’ve resisted the patriots’ theme-park trap. A V1 is suspended inside the roof, frozen in mid-fall just metres above visitors’ heads: the moment before impact. This is fear, and the bomb on the outside, visible from platform one of London Bridge rail station, are part of it.)

 

Still, my feeling won’t let me drop (oho) this. I have a problem with the V2.

 

I’ve always liked cities that wear their scars well. Not proudly, but honestly. I like Warsaw, for not pulling down the Palace of Culture, built in its centre on the orders of Stalin as a symbol of Russian-Soviet dominion. That alone would make it unpopular enough, give or take its boxy, brutal, anabolic-Empire-State rocketiness. But there it stands. To pull it down would be a lie. The people of Warsaw hold faith with the idea that the city can (it does) incorporate it.

 

I like Berlin, for leaving the bulletholes on the sides of buildings from the obscure, smacky back alleys of Wedding to the iconic Brandenburger Tor. Berlin has no choice. Just as it is for the Union Jack, for Berlin the past is a complex place. To cover the bulletholes – made by Russian, German, British and American bullets – would be an act of dishonesty. There’s plenty of dishonesty around in Berlin, of course (those street names that keep changing depending on who’s in charge) but still, the holes are there.

 

I was thinking of more examples when the train pulled in. I got on the train, sat with my face pressed against the smeared and scratchtagged window as we sighed and creaked over the girders and arches. The sky lowered, and by the time the door-press button activated at my stop, its hydraulic hiss and orange glow felt as welcoming as a lantern in a window.

 

Outside my station, somewhere in the southern suburbs, I crossed the road at a bridge. The vans and buses and mums with buggies flowed over the bridge, and I stepped between them and up onto the kerb. A long time ago, it someone had painted a sign on the bridge. I pass it a lot. This time, I read it.

And suddenly, I knew what bothered me so much about the V2 at London Bridge.

 

The ‘shelter for 700’ refers to a wartime air raid shelter in a siding under the station bridge. The shelter is one for local families to use when the bombs started raining from the sky, right from the Luftwaffe raids in 1941 to the V2s in ’45. There’s nothing here in this suburb, nothing but people. There’s never been a factory here, never a military base, never a government building. Just people, parks, churches and a couple of shops. But because it was a few short miles south of the Docks, it took a lot of its damage from jettisoned bombs. The bombers used to lighten their load in order to save fuel returning over the North Sea, and this was where they dropped anything they hadn’t already loosed over London, then headed up into the clouds.

 

This shelter was the underground refuge where hundreds of people, people very much like me and my wife and my kids and my friends, fled and hid and prayed and ate and hoped, while all through the night their homes and families and lives were bombed at random.

 

And what I like about it today is that the pain is still there; and that not only has nobody scrubbed it off or painted over it; no-one’s put a plaque there either. No-one here has chosen to make it official. No-one has stapled a bomb to the side of it, or planted a flag next to it, or chosen to preserve it in any way. Not the mayor, not local historians, not the council, not the Tourist Board, not the National Trust.

 

The disused shelter, the paint on the bridge, can fend for themselves. Unlike the V2, they speak their own truth. The V2 has been polished, repainted, mounted and juxtaposed with a flag and a museum, and these things speak for it. They put it into a story: one they tell me is, if not mine, then that of the city I live in. But the story that bomb tells is mediated, told by a narrator who wants to sell me something, his/her version of history and of London. It sounds glorious and defiant and false. There’s money behind that version, money for flags and plaques, and I don’t like it. The encounter feels hollow and dishonest, however true and terrible those V2 nights were.

 

By contrast, the paint on the bridge still there simply because it is – like most of London. It’s messy, it’s unofficial, and it’s honest. Like the wildlife and weeds of Deptford (before its wharves were turned into executive show-homes for the corporate set), or Stratford’s barbed-wire-and-birdlife hinterland (before it was turned into a stadium, its roads paved with logos), this sign is just a survivor.

 

There’s no preservation order on it. When somebody wants to move it, build over it, knock it down, put their graffiti over it or scrub it off, they will.

 

And I can’t help but smile as I walk home and reflect that, for the past 72 years and again today, nobody has wanted to.

 

 

Comment: Duwayne Brooks and the London riot story that never got written

Some stories write themselves. Some never get written, though they’re better by far. There’s something irreducible about them, too many loose ends. They don’t have neat beginnings and endings. They don’t fit our (journalists’, readers’) idea of the arc. Sometimes they’re just collected impressions.

This one’s like that, and I’m setting it down here simply because I think someone should write the story that never got written. Maybe it isn’t a story after all, but a diary of sorts. You tell me.

It starts (though I didn’t know it at the time) nearly 20 years ago. As a newly arrived, young, white Londoner, I followed the Stephen Lawrence case through the 1990s, then the 2000s, if not avidly then certainly with an odd mixture of horror, casual compulsion, mounting disbelief at the catalogue of establishment errors or worse, and something… what was that other thing? I guess it was a bit like shame, only less easily pinned down. It was a vague, nagging, sticky discomfort that came and went. Something I didn’t like feeling, but knew it wasn’t to be shied away from. It was an itching unease about what might, for others, lurk beneath the surface of a society that I, white, lower-middle-class and male, may not always have liked, but had always, personally at least, experienced as fair and neutral in its justice.

I knew names, places, details from the news. I remember Martin Bashir’s documentary on the Dobson-Norris gang as a consensus TV moment: the one we all knew we’d all watched, whatever our age, background or colour. That photograph of the teenage Stephen Lawrence – striped top, grin, one arm folded upwards – was one of the defining images of 1990s Britain. Printed and reprinted, flickering on screens from electrical shops and pub TV sets, for a generation it became as ubiquitous, as powerful, as any shot of Neville Chamberlain, heavy-eyed, monochrome Myra Hindley or triangular, flag-topped Iwo Jima.

I knew the names of the gang members. Acourt, Acourt, Norris, Knight, Dobson. The first two sounding posh and French, then the three identikit English names. They took on a strange voodoo, these names. Bad luck to utter them. Creepily average. I looked at the faces, and tried to remember them too.

There was one name I did not know. The other person who’d been present – Stephen Lawrence’s friend, the boy who managed to escape. I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow it never registered. Eventually, that boy faded from my memory altogether, and only the crime – the innocent victim, the actions of the mob – remained.

By 2011, I was living in south-east London. It’s a big, open, hilly place. A few train stops and two decades separated my neighbourhood from early-1990s Eltham. Still, some things bubble and blister beneath the surface, and occasionally they rise. The London riots, when they came that summer, tore through the High Street, smashing faces and homes and shops and trust, then slipped round quiet neighbourhood corners and into evacuated parks, until the following day.

I wasn’t watching it on TV this time. Walking home, passing groups of people heading the other way, I took it all in. There were fights, screams and the sound of car doors. There were chases, and mock-furtive, too-loud talk of where was next, which houses were marked for tonight, and who was doing what. Like everyone, I was on edge, cautious, rattled. But I was curious too. So sometimes I followed as close as I could, to see what happened next. I set up multiple TweetDeck feeds, to monitor the streets, neighbourhoods and tags I suspected would see action. I began examining coverage, mapping claim against reality.

And what I saw, on the streets, in the galloping updates on my Twitter feeds, and when I turned on the TV that night, was fear. Any journalist knows TV cameras can do that – point a camera at a burning car or smoking Tube station from enough angles, and that night it will look like the whole city is ablaze. But somehow, those flickering black-and-orange images leaped off the screens and captured the popular imagination.

Fear bowled along the streets of Lewisham, even when nobody else did. Rumours spread. More riots would be coming tonight. The freesheets ran with it. Offices buzzed with it. A group of 1,000 rioters had been spotted heading North along the next road. EDL members were marching now. A race riot was about to kick off. Shops were being looted.

There were no police. Senior members of the Government were all caught out, still on holiday, as was Boris Johnson, the mayor of London. Tracked down by broadcast news, they looked lost, floundering, and smaller somehow. So did London. I knew it wasn’t an apocalypse, and that cover of Time was just silly, but the speculation, more than any fires or smashed windows, quickly lay waste to a lot of the residual trust people there felt, not just in the police and government, but in fellow Londoners.

There was one public figure in the city who seemed to be playing a blinder, though. I’d never even heard of him before – or at least I didn’t think I had. He was a Lib Dem Councillor in Lewisham, and suddenly he was everywhere. He seems, at one point early on, to have made it his personal mission to take on the misinformation, the rumour-mongering, the panic and the suspicion. His tweets tell the story today if you care to look back over them. He went from place to place and tweeted what he saw. When even the normally reliable Alex Tomlinson of Channel 4 News repeated an unverified rumour about a brewing race riot near Eltham, the Councillor debunked it. He replied publicly to people who claimed they’d witnessed improbable acts of mass violence, and asked them for details over the 3G airwaves. Where was this? Had they seen it? Because he was there now and the shop window looked intact. He asked Londoners to refrain from indulging rumours and retweets of things they could not personally verify. One tweet said simply: “No fighting no riots no looting no NF in #lewisham. Please stop tweeting nonsense. This is not a game. People are scared. #fixup please.”

He went further. He put his personal mobile number on his site, and tweeted it, so people could call and ask him what was happening, anywhere in the area, when they had no reliable information. He became, briefly, the single most trustworthy medium for news on developments in South London’s melting pot turned bubbling cauldron. He replied to enquiries and appeals on Twitter – all of them, publicly or individually. Again and again, he damped wild speculation about the racial demographic of rioters, and quashed rumours about white racist vigilante groups.

His huge presence, his championing of perspective and truth, was quite a contrast to the vacuum the Met and the Cabinet had left us inhabiting those first few hot, suspicion-filled, dangerous days. I remember tweeting his details at the time, “[Councillor’s name] – he’s on fire. This is what politicians are for!”

And all the while, in the midst of the chaos, I had two images in my head. One was of something this local politician reminded me of, an image drawn from the book I had just finished. It was Boris Yeltsin clambering up on a tank in front of Moscow’s Parliament building during the attempted Russian coup of 1991, and facing down the crisis with sheer presence (and reportedly some vodka too). It made me laugh with its bathos even then, but on some level it was true too.

The other image?

That didn’t make me laugh, it made me tense. It was an image of the worst that can happen in South London. It was a picture of what the city had to avoid, at all costs. It was a picture from 1993, of what happens, of what is lost, when people let themselves hate and mistrust, blindly. It was that shot of Stephen Lawrence, and I kept it in mind every time something immoderate appeared on a front page, or crackled over the airwaves.

The riots ended with the run of hot weather, and with the late, slow arrival of the police. I meant to thank the Councillor. I’d heard phrases like ‘community leaders’ before, and I’d always sort of thought they referred to self-appointed spokesmen or religious elders among discrete, probably ethnically or culturally homogeneous communities. Muslim community leaders. Black community leaders. I suppose for the first time I saw leadership being shown, rather than claimed, and I realized that I was part of one of those communities experiencing a degree of leadership. So I thought about composing a quick email – maybe a tweet – just to say how much of a difference his work for those few days had made.

But I never did. I left it just too late. And by then, the man I wanted to thank was in the news again, for very different reasons, and probably receiving more emails than anybody could be expected to handle.

I saw the Councillor in the news during this winter’s trial of two of the men who had killed Stephen Lawrence. His name was Duwayne Brooks, and back on that evening in 1993, he’d been the friend who’d escaped from the gang. I felt stupid for not having remembered the name’s significance that summer. Then I thought: wow.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve read more about Duwayne Brooks – the terrible impact of the murder itself; the long campaign of intimidation, prejudice and smears against him by the Metropolitan Police; his treatment at the hands of the law and, often, the media; his transformation from frightened, suspicious virtual fugitive to politician; and his dignity and perseverance at the final reckoning for two of the murderers.

And here’s what impressed me most. If there was ever anyone who had the right to feel hate, or suspicion, or to welcome some form of blowback against the power structures of a city that had let him and his friend down so badly, it was Duwayne Brooks. If anyone could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia about a police vacuum and rumours of racial conflict in South London, it would have been him.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead, for those long, hot days in South London, when those structures let everyone down and fear threatened to take over the streets, he was as a powerful force for tolerance, truth, reason, calm, and – more than anything – trust. He was markedly less speculative, panicky or paranoid than most of the better journalists I know.

What I started out wanting to say was this. I don’t usually write praise for politicians, but in this era of photo opps, press briefings and presubmitted questions, It’s worth remembering Duwayne Brooks was there for the people he represented. On his mobile, on the streets, and on the case.

And yet this is not really about politics either. It’s about how we let ourselves feel as people, as Londoners, and about how we react to what shapes us. Because if a city like this can’t learn more from Duwayne Brooks than how to survive a terrible ordeal and come through, then we miss the point. And if we can’t learn from his incredible presence during that week of madness how to help others through their troubles and suspicion and fear too, then we’ve got no-one to blame but ourselves.

So… So what? I don’t know the rest. Like I said at the start, it’s not really a story, and this is too messy to be an ending. But in the years to come, I hope we – Londoners, people, whatever – can give it an ending, and make it a proper story. And I really hope we make it a good one.

Update 16th January 2012: After receiving a copy of this piece for syndication, the London Evening Standard ran it, originally changing the byline to one of their staffers. That issue has now been rectified, and you can read their shorter edit of the piece here.

Video: “Cocaine coffee tables?!” CNN bosses, the craziest cop in Brazil, and me

 

It started perfectly innocently. I was out with a friend on Thursday, and the phone rang. I didn’t pick up – it was ten o’clock, and I’d worked my way through six large glasses of what I remember being an increasingly smooth Italian red, and a couple of bottles of Grolsch for good measure. I’m not a big drinker, and it’s not my usual style, but this guy was over from Sierra Leone, he’s an old friend, and, and… and it explains why I didn’t pick up.

It was a New York number.

The second time it rang, less than a minute later, I picked up. It was CNN. Could I make it to their London office? They had some story kick off with Brazilian smugglers in a plane, they’d been brought down by a cop using only his cujones and a Toyota corolla, and could I comment?

Not a chance. I’m a little tipsy. No way. Nope. Find someone else, someone who isn’t afraid, I mean really afraid, of making a lemon of himself on a prime-time network news show. I gave them my final ‘No’. Put the phone down. That was a close call.

 

 

Well, here’s the interview. I guess they got more than they bargained for, and the show’s bosses sent out a tweet within the hour hashtagged #justtobeclear, clarifying that they do not condone the use, possession, sale, purchase or production of “coffee tables made of cocaine”.

 

 

What can I say? They’re persuasive people.

 

Review download: ‘Outlaws Inc.’ launches in Germany, gets full-page rave in The Literary Review!

Thanks to Britain’s leading literary magazine, The Literary Review, for their full-page write-up on Outlaws Inc. this month, by veteran BBC man John Sweeney. You can read the review by clicking on the scan above to enlarge – but suffice to say, I’m framing it and the cover. Coming on the heels of the Washington Post‘s “Fascinating… great writing” and the Seattle Times piece, this has been a great month for the book. My heartfelt thanks to all concerned.

 

Meanwhile, Outlaws Inc. launched under its German title Tödliche Fracht (‘Deadly Cargo’) in Germany, with a party at Ullstein Verlag’s HQ on Berlin’s Friedrichstrasse. Radio interviews in German with ARD and RTL as well as press interviews with newspapers from Kiel to Cologne and Potsdam to Münster saw it off. I’ll be posting some of the features and interviews, in German, in the very near future.

Analysis: Auto destruct: the curious case of the flaming Mercedes (…not to mention the Audis BMWs, Porsches & VWs)

Who (or what) is behind Berlin’s bonfire of the coupés?

This time, it was Porsche lighting up the night with its flames. A high-spec Cayenne, freshly waxed with all the extras. Its owner had parked it outside his apartment around midnight on the 21st September. By ten to five in the morning, it was just another charred, smouldering shell on another Berlin sidestreet.

 

There are no sirens, no flashing lights in Friedrichshain, the gentrifying suburb on the firmer eastside. For the red-eyed Polizist blowing on his styrofoam coffee, it is all too familiar. On the front seat of his squadcar, his radio crackles. His colleague stretches the tape around the Cayenne and the blackened husk of what was once a VW Polo parked next to it. Another cop posts notices on neighbouring apartment lobbies and doors.

 

By now, the question of the early summer – who was the phantom arsonist, torching luxury cars on a nightly basis, sometimes by the dozen? – has become a shrug. These cases – and there’s another coming in on the radio from just across the ditch in Kreuzberg – take the figures close to 400 since June. Nobody I talk to on the street is quite sure how close, simply because they say they’ve lost track. They are almost always luxury models, almost always German-made.

 

As the first Autobrände (‘automotive firebombings’) filtered in, the Bullen – hard-bitten city cops – had figured it was business as usual. Germany is no stranger to automotive arson, and the past four years have seen its crime map becoming a pincushion of charred marques: VWs, BMWs, Audis, Mercedes take the brunt, but only because, well, that’s most of what you see in Germany. There’s even a special website, brennende-autos.de – or “Burning Cars” – where you can chart the latest car arson action. But though there have been waves before, mostly those cases were scattered, occasional, and varied in their methods: petrol on the backseat and a tossed match; rag in the fueltank.

 

Under pressure from a city hall anxious to see the incumbent mayor win a third term, investigators started out handling it like those cases: old-fashioned, low-key policework, pick up the clues, wait for a pattern, arrest the fraudster or pissed-off boyfriend. Nothing to see here.

 

But this summer, something unusual happened: the arsons multiplied, then multiplied again, spreading quickly out of control.

 

Not that there was no method, at least at first. The attacks were all concentrated around just a few square miles of central Berlin; they were all discovered in an advanced charred and smouldering state – there were no fireballs, no explosions, no smashed glass. They burned silently, from the inside. One local resident told me it reminded her of human spontaneous combustion.  It was the ultimate stealth method, nearly impossible to stop or detect, and most importantly of all, it buys the firebug time.

 

This is the method. A quiet street, the early hours – between 1am and 5am, when the city is emptiest. A wedge of barbecue firelighters inside the front wheel arch, by the kerbside tyre. By the time the flames are visible to the next dog-walker, cop or shiftworker to pass, it’s too late: the rubber tyre has gone up like reunifocation day firework, and the engine, exposed to the flames licking up the inside of the wings and causing the fuel tank to overheat and erupt, has exploded. Seconds later and the car is a fireball encased in metal: 1,000ºC on the insides, the frame smoking and collapsing in on itself. The arsonist is long gone – vanished on foot or bicycle while the firelighters were still just small bundle of white cubes wedged under the tyre of the mark.

 

Such was the speed with which the firebug spread that reports awaiting processing became backlogged. At one stage, police were reduced to modifying their theories and their list of suspects on the fly, as data entered into the computers forced on-duty officers to abandon searches midway through and head to new addresses.

 

By August, nine cars a night were being razed, with the weeknights 15-17th alone claiming 40 automotive arsons. Since the hot, dry Berlin summer kicked in, the total was 372, and creeping nightly towards 400.

 

There were now those within the department – and in Berlin – who argued that this was no longer a crime, but an epidemic; a kind of spreading madness or mass hysteria. They argued it could no longer possibly be a case of who was torching the cars, but why so many others had started torching them too.

 

Every time they thought they had a pattern, it would break. The most attractive blanket suspects for a long time were radical political factions. The rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods of Kreuzberg and Mitte seemed to draw most of the fire – the former West- and East-Berlin’s radical urban neighbourhoods whose long-standing inhabitants have a deep suspicion of the incoming hipsters, executives and media types whose arrival has brought lurching rent-rises, bulldozers and big, bad brands.

 

The authorities focused on the fact that many of the charred and burning wrecks lining these neighbourhoods each morning were luxury models. That was enough for them to make the left-wing radicals connection. And that meant they, the same cops who until a week or two ago had been prepared for the usual collaring of disgruntled ex-lovers and parking disputes – were now effectively running an anti-terror operation.

 

German terror cells have a history of fetishistic attachment to their cars that rivals that of the yuppies, businessmen and suburbanites they oppose. For a few heady years in the 70s, the BMW enjoyed the nickname “Baader-Meinhof-Wagen”, because of that group’s preference for the marque – and specifically its top-of-the-range models, capable of outrunning police pursuers. This time, initial suspicions settled on the car as economic symbol. The dark side of these automotive symbols – BMW’s terror-group adherents and mad owners, VW’s Nazi origins and slave-labour production lines, Mercedes’ staff-car iconography – still has a heavy voodoo that would make them magnets for fringe groups looking for a symbol.

 

They didn’t need to look far.

 

In these bohemian heartlands, shiny status rides attract flack every day. Locals had long been voicing the need for direct action, just like the glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when their running battles with the police who kept trying to break up their protests and raid their homes for drugs – tactics they saw as creactionary attempts to cleanse leftist communities – made headlines, with burning cars and water cannon staples of the nightly news. This time, the locals felt, the cleansing was being achieved economically, by stealth, with chain outlets replacing family businesses and tenants (nobody buys in Germany) forced out by property developers. As the arsonist or arsonists struck again and again, the police became convinced the local radicals were executing a risky homegrown terror campaign: a “bonfire of the brands”.

 

As the burnings overtook past years (until now, 2009 had been the arson epidemic everyone talked about) the authorities, having reclassed 155 of the 372 cases on record as ‘politically motivated’ crimes, responded with numbers. This too was just like the 1970s: 500 extra police would patrol the city suburbs, every night. Helicopters would keep watch from above. Chasing down suspects with searchlights.

 

They proved useless. The low-key nature of the detonation – all it took was a few seconds kneeling beside a car, pretending to tie your shoelace while you pushed the firelighters into the wheel arch – made the arsonists impossible to catch.

 

The mayor, Klaus Wowereit, was a worried man. His conservative challenger Frank Henkel was now campaigning on the issue, claiming he’d set up a Berliner Bürgerwehr, or Citizen’s Vigilante Militia, to combat the problem if he got elected. The police immediately hit back. “Bounty hunters belong in Westerns,” said their spokesman. “Vigilante justice is much more of a danger.”

 

Feeling the heat, Berlin Police began offering €5,000 for tipoffs, no questions asked. Rainer Wendt, head of the German Police Union, went on TV, making “a desperate appeal for tips from all citizens.”

 

In the meantime, they had another problem. No sooner had they begun to investigate the left-wing terror/direct action theory than the wave of fire spread, beginning to engulf rattletrap traders’ vehicles, scrapheap-dodgers and second-hand Fords and Opels parked across the city. By late September, the targets were more or less indiscriminate: a police spokeswoman read out the nightly toll to jaded press in a deadpan voice: “One Opel Corsa on Rigaer Strasse. Old registration, Time of burning around 1.40am. Another Opel, unidentified, parked next to the first. Old registration. One Audi, Bernkastelerstrasse, Weissensee district. Time reported, 6.30am.”

 

I asked the police who they thought they were dealing with now. Off the record, one businesslike Berlin cop told me the only possible explanation was a “coalition, just like the politicians… some people early on were certainly protesting. But that created a new condition and everybody who wanted to could burn something.”

 

The result was, if not a madness, a wave of oddly opportunistic bacchanalia. The normally buttoned-up people of Berlin, given the perfect cover, wanted to see what it would be like. Copycats – many, police believe, otherwise law-abiding people who had never entertained the thought of arson before – found the temptation too much to resist.

 

Then came the third wave. The disgruntled, the vengeful and the jilted could suddenly get even, Scott-free, courtesy of the epidemic. Fraudsters, anyone who fancied a new car. Underappreciated wardens, neighbourhood watchmen, even firemen. Only four suspects have been jailed, with seven more free but under investigation. Clearly, the police were desperate: one, a pretty 21-year-old identified only as Alexandra R, was arrested for being in the vicinity of a car on a dark street with a spraycan in her hand.

 

That morning, police announced a breakthrough. They had arrested someone they believed to be a key figure on the wave of automotive arson. Someone who had been arrested – and freed – on suspicion of torching cars once before, in that long hot summer of 2009. They could put him at the scene, apparently convincingly, of a handful of burnings.

 

They named him Tobias P, a 25-year-old Berlin resident. Tobias is a freelance crime snapper. Under the name ‘Andreas’, Tobias had been covering the burnings – often first on the scene, always great pictures – and selling his photographs of the cars police now suspect him of torching back to Berliner Zeitung city newspaper, other media, and the police themselves.

 

Meanwhile, the firebug has spread to Moscow, with the long, hot weeks of high summer claiming between four and nine cars every single night. The same methods. The same complex relationship between residents and the luxury cars that line their suburbs.
Perhaps, after all, we get the riots we deserve. This summer in the Middle East, long-standing dictators in military fatigues got bazooka-toting rebel armies. In London, Manchester and Birmingham, decades of mixed messaging about aspiration and cut throat competition begat locusts in branded clothing, devouring electronics and sportswear stores.

 

And in Germany – as ever – it all came down to das auto. The VWs, the Audis, the BMWs, the Mercedes, the Porsches. The post-war economic miracle, in moulded chrome, dirty secrets as standard. Berliners’ symbol of the fat years, once so comforting and lasting, now pouring black smoke from the hood as dawn breaks over another Kreuzberg sidestreet.

 

Comment: The best writer I know

 

While I was in New York, running around promoting the book and doing things I thought were all terribly important, something else happened.

 

Jetlagged and excited, I sat on a step outside a Starbucks close to 5th Avenue to check my emails. There was a cheery, round-robin, letting-you-know email from a good friend and fellow journalist – I’ll call her X here, because though her news is now more or less public, I’m guessing it would only embarrass her if people knew who she was from reading this. It started in the way she always starts important news – the chatty, importance-deflating opener, the joke or two just to settle you in, then (wallop) the Big News, always with the same casual, pick-that-out-of-the-net delivery. I love the way she does news.

 

As I began to read it, I remembered the last time I’d seen such an off-hand opener to a piece of amazing gossip from her. That one had said something like, “So whaddyaknow. I got a book deal.” I’d loved that. I read on.

 

So whaddyaknow (…the jokes…) the big news is (…and the casual netside smash…) she’s got cancer.

 

I read it back again.

 

X has got cancer. Actually, she’s got cancer back. And this time it means business in a way that makes even her previous brush – aged 28, breast, stage four, double removal and reconstruction, more major surgery, chemo – look like it was just messing her about. Three years on, it’s in her bones. And while it can be treated, it cannot be cured.

 

Then the jokes again, and the Bossy X thing, telling recipients to get a damn grip, put it in perspective and look out for her husband, brother and family. It was a hell of an email. I sat there and looked at the email, while 5th Avenue did its fast-motion thing around me and my inbox.

 

Then something weird happened. Something that was almost as surprising as the news itself.

 

But for me to tell you what, there are three things you now have to know about X.

 

1. She’s the best writer I know. This is something I said, both to her face (OK, Twitter face) and others (everywhere) before this note. A good thing too: if I told her now, such is her aw-shucks modesty she’d assume I was “just saying it”.

 

2. When I say the best writer, I actually don’t mean just the best writer. Her tweets, her journalism, her blog, her book, her conversation – especially, her conversation – all have something that make people want to be a part of them. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s a sort of empathy. There’s this thing when you’re at the pub or work or wherever and chewing the fat with X, where you see her absolutely rapt in the narrative (joke, tall tale, laugh, polemic, whatever) of the moment. You tell a story, and you notice she’s primed, ready for the laugh. Essentially, I believe this is what informs her writing. She’s up for the story in a way that a lot of journalists aren’t, and will follow a line of humour for the reward, where other writers might pull back. It’s a sort of nose for the good bit. An instinct for entering into the spirit of things. It makes her writing fun, and true, but it also makes it really human. A lot of journalists don’t necessarily do things like human, warm, empathy. I love slipping into them, but for her, they aren’t fancy dress; they’re like housetrousers.

 

In fact, I think that’s what makes her a great writer: the same thing that makes her such fun to have as a mate. And if you’ve read her books, her articles, but don’t know her, here’s the news: you do know her. Because she really is the person you hope she’ll be when you laugh and tut and generally hang out with her page-self.

 

3. That’s what I think. And I’m not even one of X’s super-close friends. We’ve worked together, jabber over social media quite a bit, meet for a drink occasionally. I’ve met her man and he’s a great guy too. I guess/hope they both know I’ve got their backs if it comes to it. But in that oh-so-London way, I still don’t know her home address.

 

So why do you have to know all this? What comes next that’s so surprising, so hard to understand?

 

For X, I felt (feel) pissed off, powerless, sad, guilty (Woah! Where did that come from?), and lots more. But something in what she wrote, or how she wrote it, made me weirdly hopeful. Or maybe inspired. Something. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t hopeful or inspiring news. So that messed with my mind for a few days. And (a week on) I think I’ve figured it out.

 

There’s been a fair bit of cancer flying about in my family recently, and there’s nothing good about it. It’s a mean-spirited thing. It doesn’t just take your health, or your loved ones’ health; it tries to mess with your mind. It puts things off limits – not just activities but whole subjects of discussion, even feelings. It puts up barriers between people. It stops them doing, saying, even thinking what they really want (need) to do, say, and think.

 

People become prisoners to it.

 

They want to talk to their families like they did before, freely and with love, and without baggage.

 

Cancer says No.

 

They want to say ‘I love you’ without the other person thinking they’re only saying it because they have cancer.

 

They want to be told they are loved without thinking, “This person is only saying this because I have cancer”.

 

Cancer says No to that.

 

They want people to see them, argue with them, say hello and goodbye to them, hug them, catch up with them, share a joke with them, without the other person seeing a cancer-sufferer instead of a mum, a brother, a sister, a wife, a dad, a grandma, a son, a husband, a daughter, a friend.

 

They want to talk to people without cancer subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen.

 

They want to watch TV, listen to some music, read a magazine, have a conversation, without half-expecting that awful moment when innocent turn, chance remark, supporting character (something they would have skated over a million times before, something innocuous or coincidental) brings them out of the moment and back to their cancer, and its shadow.

 

Cancer says No.

 

Cancer says No to a lot of things. It tries to close us down. It can be very isolating. X knew this, because in the book she wrote about the last time, she even thanked the friends “who just didn’t know what to say”. At different times, that’s been me.

 

I’ve never had cancer. But like I say, more than one member of my close family has had it, this past couple of years. And while they had it, they got further away. And that always seemed to me the cruellest thing.

 

The No is always the same. It’s a shake of the head, something filled with doubt and isolation. But everything X does, everything she says, and everything she writes in response – even in the email that informed her friends of its return – is a far more powerful affirmation of her closeness to people. Humour beats doubt and awkwardness every time; humanity, openness and generosity of spirit will always kick the black dogs of depression and helplessness out.

 

And then there’s love.

 

That – sheer bloody love of life, of the people around her, of the ongoing story, of the moment before the laugh, of her husband, family, friends, of people at large – is what comes through in her writing and conversation. It’s in that email, her ongoing blog, her book, and her journalism on damn near any subject; it’s in her tweets and status updates, and (especially) it’s in the times in pubs and offices and on Twitter that she’s made me laugh and think how much I’d like to be her when I grow up.

 

And those things combine in her to make a great big fucking YES, about million times louder than anything the cancer can muster up.

 

YES to friends, yes to humour, yes to honesty, yes to closeness, yes to all the precious stuff cancer tries to deny. Yes to still loving life, yes to seeing the world wide open. Yes to the moment before the laugh. Yes to the continuing story, whatever it holds.

 

That word. Somehow she managed to sneak it inside every single one of the other words on that email. You couldn’t see it at first, you couldn’t read it, but you could sure feel it. Like I say: the best writer I know.

 

 Update, 29th September: So the cat is out of the bag regarding the person identified as ‘X’ in this post. And since it is, I’m adding it here, so readers can chase Lisa Lynch’s work down – and her blog entry on the subject, which contained much of the text from the just-letting-you-know email – and see what I mean for themselves. And as for her book, The C-Word, just buy it. 

 

Analysis: Chewbacca, Kurt Cobain & cheap thrills, or life in a post-Soviet West

What if…? is a popular parlour game among historians. How would the world look had World War Two ended differently? What would a Confederate-won Civil War have meant in a parallel 21st-century USA? What if the DDR’s army hadn’t wavered, and the Berlin Wall had never fallen?

 

This week brought a chance to play a different, even more tantalizing game. Truthdig Radio and the KPFK network in Los Angeles devoted a half-hour segment of their weekend show to discussion with Matt this week, talking Outlaws Inc., the 20th anniversary of the Soviet collapse, and its continuing aftermath.

 

Titled ‘Dodging Missiles With Russian Smugglers‘, the segment looked at the way in which everything from free trade to terrorism, our own governments’ foreign and fiscal policy, and even our own view of democracy, society and the world continues to be affected by what Soviets called the Cataclysm of 1991. While we in the West were all obsessing about a Reagan/Lucasfilm showdown with the Evil Empire and its Politburo of Darth Vaders that never materialized, should we have been watching instead for the thousands upon thousands of demobbed, unaccountable and nigh-untraceable Han Solos and Chewbaccas in their rusty old Millennium Falcons that suddenly swamped the skies? And what, from Afghanistan to Iraq and Colombia to Haiti, might have been different if we had?

 

Were we distracted by our own propaganda into believing a Cold War could be won outright, to the point of ignoring the aftermath of cheap AK-47s and Strela rocket launchers flooding the market? Is the War on Terror floundering precisely because it’s based on the fatal assumption that the War on Communism ended nice and neatly? Where would Rumsfeld and co have found all the ‘non-state actors’ to fly materiel to Iraq and Afghanistan without all the cheap ex-military Russian labour? How did we not predict the USSR’s military-assisted heroin pipelines suddenly redirecting through Europe and America as its newly freelance – and impoverished – ex-servicemen strove to make a buck out of their old infrastructure?

 

Could it be that, as well as arming a rash of conflicts from Somalia to Afghanistan and Armenia to Liberia and creating the generation of highly educated software dabblers who more or less invented the DDOS and spawned the download and piracy industry, the suddenness of the Soviet collapse was what killed Kurt Cobain and that guy from Alice In Chains?

 

So, how much of all our lives in the West 20 years on is secretly, subtly, Soviet-influenced? Are we ourselves living inside one of those ‘What if…?’ games after all? You can listen to the interview here, read the book if you want to, and make your own mind up…

Latest: Outlaws Inc makes front page news for the Huffington Post

The newly launched UK edition of the Huffington Post today picked up on Outlaws Inc., featuring the book’s whistle-blowing on the role of arms-traffickers in the Somali famine as its front-page story.

The August 4th edition ran Matt’s exclusive 1,000-word outtake ‘Death dollars and déjà vu in Somalia: how the seamier side of the international airlift is turning a crisis into a calamity’, linking to the book on Amazon and featuring it in the adapted copy.

The piece – first published on this website last week – reveals the deadly compromises made between aid NGOs, mercenary aircrews, Al-Shabab, international cargo operations, pirates and the UN itself, and the role they play in perpetuating the current crisis. For more information, contact Matt via the details on this website’s Contact page. For all UK serialisation, comment or review requests, just get in touch.

Analysis: Black PR, white noise: How grey goo is killing the news media (and the news media doesn’t seem to mind).

This is a post about a systemic failure in our media organisations when it comes to reporting, and it has nothing to do with Rupert Murdoch or plagiarism.

 

It starts in Soho and ends in Syria. If you’re a journalist, you’ll probably know it already, so apologies – though a couple of events recently, one of which I’ll cover below, have made me wonder just how many of us know either. I really only decided to rattle this out after realising, in the wake of the News International phone-hacking brouhaha and the case of Johann Hari, that certain things many in the media take for granted are both new to, and potentially quite unacceptable to, the broad public.

 

We can start off in the shallow end. In a past life, I worked (briefly) in the music press. Briefly for three reasons. First, the music press just isn’t the place for would-be investigative journalists. And the mid-2000s, when the record companies funding it were feeling the pinch and just wanted boosters, was probably not the time either.

 

Second, famous musicians and singers, let alone their handlers, tend to be terribly dull. They’re like footballers, brand people or – on this tragi-comic evidence – Ed Milliband. They have a party line, are petrified of the perceived power of the press to misquote/misrepresent. This makes them uptight, careerist, bland and repetitive. Only the odd one here or there is confident, experienced or chippy enough to throw caution to the wind and engage in any kind of genuine discussion. In that one respect (though I imagine there might be others, and I shiver) Marilyn Manson was a bit like Joey Barton.

 

But the third reason was the most dispiriting of all, and provides one neon-lit clue as to why sales of music magazines have dropped through the floor even faster than those of mags in many other sectors. Whatever you think of music reviewers (and I certainly did), at least one never used to doubt their sincerity. The knowledge that drunken arguments could be fought, friendships broken and alliances formed over the precise tone of a single album review, their agonies of integrity, their desultory pay and Keep The Aspidistra Flying existences, were salutary somehow. Reminders that they could be trusted.

 

Only, in the end, they couldn’t. Things changed, and by 2004, it wasn’t unusual for a call to the office (names changed of course) to go like this.

 

Record company guy: Hi John? Yeah, yeah, hi. Listen, Susie tells me you’re reviewing the [insert band name here] record. So, whaddyathink?
Reviewer: Well, I, um, I mean it’s OK. It’s probably two to three stars, to be honest; I mean, it’s a bit of a disappointment, but there are a couple of good…
Record company guy: OK, so here’s the thing. This is a big record for these guys, I mean you know the score what with last year’s reshuffle at the company, and they’re really bouncing back – I mean, feeling here about it is very big. It’s gotta be big.
Reviewer: What can I tell you? It’s three out of five tops, I honestly can’t give it more than that.
Record company guy: Right, right. Only I know we’ve got [insert name of global superstar band/singer]’s big album coming up in September, and I’m going to call your publisher and say that this really isn’t the kind of sympathetic environment we can place the cover story I know you guys need from us. So let’s say you give this four stars…

 

And so on. The conversation would often end badly, the reviewer would cling to his integrity, the editor would make soothing noises to the reviewer about not having to change his copy, and then the publisher (the guy who deals with the ads and holds the budget) would come and meet the editor, and then a more positive review would run. (Think back to the last major comeback from an established star. The review told you that yes, they’d been in the doldrums and the past few albums had been poor, water-treading exercises. But this was their best since their landmark album X. Not for years have they had so much energy, drive, creative spark etc. So you bought the record, and it was rubbish. And then you remembered, hadn’t the past few albums been reviewed in exactly the same terms, peddling exactly the same line. Now sigh.)

 

Creeping grey goo
This grey goo of PR- and lobby-driven content clogging up the channels (person A reports something they believe to be true to person B, only to have person C intercept and subvert the message) is something we might expect in the entertainment journalism world, where everybody has to cozy up and celebrities are the plucked’n’primped magic geese nobody wants to kill.

 

But if the recent scandals around News International, phone hacking, Harigate, ‘blagging’ and the fall of the House of Murdoch has proven anything, it’s how naïve we are about how our agendas and messages, are clogged and subverted by the same goo. (One might point out that the Government’s own agenda has been similarly clogged; only for a record company calling a reviewer, read a red-top editor calling a ministerial aide.)

 

Yet for all that it happens in countless newsrooms and reports every day, nobody talks, much less writes, about it.

 

One problem is that, while phone hacking makes great, name-driven headlines (Brooks! Clifford! Sienna! Cameron! Coogan!), and the shoddy work of Johann Hari became the lightning conductor of the whole plagiarism/cut/paste debate, the creeping grey goo of PR influence lacks a focal point.

 

The other problem is of course that pretty much everyone in the media rank and file (and I can think of dozens of reasons to include myself in that) is in some way complicit.

 

Perhaps the most worrying thing is that those who may not be complicit – good, honest people the people at the very top of the journalistic tree whose fame and authority puts them in a position to make a difference – appear not to have a clue. They are like the tyrant in the Russian fable who asked his footman why every single town and village his country smelled of fresh paint. Yesterday, in a tweet that (judging by the replies and retweets) many lower down the journalistic food chain appear to have felt was a spoof, renowned campaigning journalist George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) tweeted the following thundering outburst: “Samsung: did you authorize your PR people to try to bribe journalists to promote your products? Is this standard practice?”

 

Cue hollow laughter. (It gets hollower.)

 

How to kill a story, drown a protest, or start a coup
OK, chest cleared. We all know (except dear George M) most of our our pages and channels are taken up with bought, pushed or donated PR content, one way or another. Nearly every report you see from Somalia, Pakistan, or any war- famine-hit or disaster-zone comes courtesy of an “embedded” reporter. Embedded means they are there as the guest of an organisation on the ground – usually an aid or military organisation. This is a popular choice for reporters for many reasons. Chief among them is that the organisation on the ground has armoured 4x4s, secure accommodation and interpreters, and travelling unembedded means going alone and unsupported. But it’s also because when you travel embedded, most of the costs will usually be picked up by the organisation hosting you. The reason for this is that they can help form the reporter’s story. Go with NGO A and you will see what that NGO considers it important you see. Go with the UN and you will gain a valuable insight into their operations, and their agenda. This will become your story. And because of this, the real story – as in Somalia – goes unreported. The reason for the conflict, the famine, remains obscure. And nothing changes. But at least the paper, broadcaster or magazine saves budget.

 

But even this is relatively innocent. Only a fool would claim the UN or aid organisations wanted to obscure the root causes of the conflict or catastrophe, even if it is often a by-product of their methods.

 

What I really want to talk about is the other kind of purpose-built PR-driven content that not only swamps lifestyle coverage, but is beginning to – or at least trying to – to dictate the hard news agenda.

 

A friend of mine worked for many years as a PR without ever giving away a freebie or inviting anyone to the races. His job was to be a story killer, and story killing is one of the fastest growing sectors in the media.

 

How does it work? Easy. A client of yours has a vested interest, a secret or a cause. Someone else – a rival, ex-lover, politicians, the law, anyone – is about to go public in opposition to it. You generate “volume”. Not a counterargument necessarily, not a rebuttal, but volume. Noise. It might be noise about them, or about their cause, or a case study showing (anecdotally of course) that your way is best. It might even be noise about something completely different, which you’re pretty sure will create enough confusion or uncertainty (or just make the subject bothersome enough for researchers) that the original story no longer feels clear. It will be dropped, or postponed, which amounts to the same thing. You have killed your story: polluted its access channels with low-quality blather.

 

Even the way news is commissioned and debates are structured plays into the hands of this invisible sector of ‘private suppliers’ of content – PRs, lobbyists or pressure groups. The (otherwise excellent) Al-Jazeera has a policy of giving equal weight to all voices on the political spectrum, summed up in the channel’s motto: “The opinion. And the other opinion.” It tends to mean, as British journalist Hugh Miles details in his exhaustively researched book on the channel, that producers of a report on, say, lunar geology are compelled to seek equally weighted contributions from those who say the moon is made of cheese, we never went there anyway, and/or it’s an affront against God. In the quest for balance and fairness, truth and objectivity are lost.

 

Closer to home, screenwriter and microblogger Graham Linehan recently laid into the BBC Radio 4 flagship news programme Today for its attempt to (as he saw it) ambush him with an opposing voice, and turn an interview about a new play he’d written into an oppositional dialogue more suited to political campaigning. Elsewhere, Bad Science campaigner Ben Goldacre has detailed many hundreds of instances in which journalists, editors and producers give a platform to quacks, fraudsters and chartalans peddling misleading and often downright dangerous “alternative” views on medicine in the name of editorial balance.

 

Of course, those behind the format are mostly well-meaning enough. In these times of balanced coverage, they want to avoid accusations of bias; of spouting the official, or “establishment” line and denying dissenters a voice. (Though there is also the slightly harder-nosed motivation that by including more viewpoints and speakers in any discussion, you get to pull in more viewers/listeners/readers, be more SEO friendly, and get more talked about by more interest groups. Again, just like the music press really: if you have an R’n’B coverstar, you’d damn well better make garage rock your main supporting story, and vice-versa).

 

But while the motivations behind the format may be innocent, those of the parties who exploit this tendency in the format are sometimes less so. When the Chinese authorities censored media coverage in the wake of the recent disastrous Weizhou high-speed train crash, microbloggers using Sina Weibo, one of the two services analogous to Twitter, quickly found ways to outstrip and erode the censors’ blackouts and DDOS. A Google search this morning for weibo train crash threw up first one, then three reports from large media channels – the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Globe and Mail – as top results. Beneath them, however, were two ‘reports’ from China Media Communications, a “Social media blog covering latest trends and news from Chinese cyberspace”. This news site’s reports deflate and deflect critiques of the Chinese authorities, playing on claims of Western media bias against poor China, and western bloggers waiting only for a chance to attack China itself, rather than showing genuine concern for the victims. One concludes: “Of course the reason for the crash has be be identified and addressed but […] shouldn’t we be looking beyond criticism of China?”

 

I saw it, and it seemed odd that this report from an unknown news portal, in which there were precious few facts and not much news, could remain at the top of the Google rankings for so many days as a corrective to the “criticism of China” in the biased old Western FT and New york Times. In fact, the site appears to be an astroturf blog – that is, a site run by a larger organisation to gove the impression of ‘grass-roots’ blogging – from a London-based company called Newland Public Relations, whose client base is largely Chinese, and in no small measure government related. They offer many media and PR services, among them crisis communications, Government communications, media briefings, media monitoring, online crisis management, political strategy, and social media management and monitoring. It’s tempting to speculate on its motives, and the reasons for its oddly high ranking. What is beyond doubt is the way its claim the water. Not a great deal; just enough to create a plurality of angles; to create babble, or debate, around events following the train crash and what appears to be a ham-fisted media crackdown by the Chinese authorities.

 

And if Newland PR has been commissioned by a government to disrupt criticism, it would not be alone. Those trying to follow events unfolding in Syria on Twitter by following the #Syria hashtag of late will have noticed two things: first, virtual busloads of trolls arriving to abuse, mock and threaten anyone tweeting on the revolution there. Second, the arrival of spambots, clogging the hashtag with useless and nonsensical chatter and slogans, to the point where timelines are polluted and people switch off. According to an excellent investigation published this month by Global Voices Online, the trolls are the work of pro-Assad security service operatives; the second, of a Bahrain-based PR company, Eghna Developement and Support, which claims to provide “political campaign solutions.” Their accounts (there are several) tweet every two minutes under the hashtag in what appears to be an attempt to drown out the hashtag with spam. Anas Qtiesh, the Global Voices investigator, reports: “Instead of generating bad PR by blocking websites or solely relying on going after online activists […] the regime at first attempted bullying and intimidation online by seemingly independent twitter accounts […] Now, they are effectively diluting the discussion and making it much harder to find any info about the protests by bombarding the popular relevant hash tags with badly disguised spam.”

 

You’ll recognize the tactic from the smoking lobby (whose mock-constructive “We need more research” stalled anti-smoking measures for decades) and the alternative medicine crew.

 

While I was writing Outlaws Inc., I came across a report entitled “Ras Al-Khaimah: A Rogue State Within The UAE?” published by US lobbying and PR firm Mercury Communications LLC. The report attempted to ‘link’ the current rulers of the tiny Emirate with nefarious plots in Iran, alleged Russian gunrunner Viktor Bout, and much more besides. It looked the part, and was taken up by the US media. Its release coincided with the illegal extradition of Bout, aka “The Merchant of Death” to New York to face gunrunning charges. For Ras Al-Khaimah – a pretty peaceful minnow emirate, with whom the US has enjoyed good relations for many years – a very public link to guys like this, in the minds of US media and congressmen, was a disaster. It should come as no surprise that the report was issued on behalf of on behalf of its foreign principal His Highness Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr Al Qasimi, and that the Sheikh is a disgruntled member of the Emirate’s royal family, who believes the throne to be rightfully his.

 

The report was full of vague, self-referential links, assertions that didn’t stand up, and rumour that appeared in precious few other places. I called Mercury LLC repeatedly for more than a month to try and get some background on their report, but they consistently stonewalled before apparently panicking and denying they’d distributed the release. (Guys, take your letterhead off next time.)

 

Still, it won’t surprise you if I tell you that the report was taken at face value quite a lot – at least until The Guardian looked closely and found it to be an attempt to generate US backing for a coup the deposed Sheikh and his PR team were planning. They needed to ensure that, if they mounted the coup, just enough fuzziness, enough grey goo and white noise had been created around the incumbent regime, that the US would hold off intervening. Judgement would be suspended. the two-star thumbs-down would become a non-committal three or four.

 

This noise, in the end, takes away the very notion of consensus, let alone unanimity. Reporting a popular movement, a fact or an event is very different to reporting a clamour, a debate, noise around a topic. Editors sense the absence of a story, and either stay away or suspend coverage until a clear ‘good guy’ emerges.

 

Of course, the fact that I’m writing this about the Chinese and Syrian incidents mean that noise doesn’t always work. Nor does compromise. But it works enough of the time to be worth trying. After all, it’s a good story sells. But not always a true one.

Analysis: Death, dollars and déjà vu in famine-hit Somalia

Update, October 2011: This is the July 2011 post that spawned the recent CNN documentary. It appeared two weeks later in modified form on the Huffington Post.

 

Famine declared by the UN in the Shabelle region of Somalia. Mogadishu in a state of “gun-blasted anarchy”. Aid floods in – but its effects are patchy. The supply chain is plagued by corruption, schisms, distribution problems, gunmen, and the deadly business logic that makes looting humanitarian supply lines easier and more profitable than harvesting from the fields nearby where food lies rotting.

Welcome to the news, second time around. For the above is not, in fact, a sketch lifted from today’s foreign pages – through in almost every detail, it is the same – but from a feature by Brian Johnson-Thomas in the October 18th, 1992 edition of British newspaper The Observer.

The picture the 19-year-old report paints is worthy of Hieronymous Bosch or Joseph Heller – humanity trapped in a Hell of its own schismatic thinking, short-termism and avarice. Still, while most of the story could have come from today’s news, some things have changed. For despite the continuing scarcity of food, justice and medicine for Somalis, some products – and products that have quickly become daily necessities – have got far, far cheaper. These daily necessities are guns. And those guns are the key to understanding the circular, Boschian absurdity of the scenes unfolding before us on the evening news.

Back in 1992, the price of an AK-47 in Somalia was “just under $75”. Today, in common with Afghanistan, Pakistan and many parts of West Africa, the price has tumbled to around $25. And unlike (say) policemen, traffic lights, teachers, sanitation, functioning schools, hospitals, government and shops – unlike any of the signs and symptoms of civil society, in fact – these weapons are everywhere. They are within reach of anyone with a family farm, home or business. Anyone with well-paid or well-connected friends, in government, in the rebel or criminal gangs that proliferate with the cash that arrives. Anyone with contacts or clients in that fattest of prizes, the aid supply chain.

In situations like this, of course urgently required food, medicine and shelter are the focus of the aid industry. But that industry’s workers, suppliers, transporters, fixers and execs bring with them the one thing that – if you can get a piece of it – not only puts you (and those you favour) at the front of the queue for food and care. It also gives you access to those missing pieces in the Somali jigsaw: a voice, influence, and justice, albeit of a summary kind. Because money means you can join the weapons merry-go-round.

The anarchy-disaster-aid-money-weapons-anarchy-disaster loop is self-sustaining. Dutch journalist Linda Polman calls it the “crisis caravan” in her book of that name. “No conflict ever stopped because the combatants ran out of weapons,” former World Bank senior committee member, Venezuelan minister and Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím told me last year, while I was researching the deadly trade in Russian-made arms for my book Outlaws Inc. “If you have the money, the guns will appear.”

And make no mistake, Somalis – or rather, certain people in Somalia – are no strangers to foreign money. The stop-start floods of international aid dollars provide the lucky few with personal riches beyond words, and feed a growing shadow-economy that only can’t be called ‘black market’ because there’s no ‘white market’ left for it to undermine or oppose.

The coastal waters, too, are often literally awash with cash, as strongboxes packed with millions of unmarked dollars dropped to pirates from the skies to obtain the release of ships and crews often come to grief on impact with the water, their green-backed cargo borne ashore by the waves. This cash from the developed world does not arrive without consequences – either for the next ship and crew taken and held to ransom, or for Somalis themselves, victims of an unstable local economy in which the arrival of $20 million in ransom money can inflate prices a hundred-fold in an hour, then cause localized economic crashes as it disappears again. In my book, I detail the way in which ransoms for ships hijacked by pirates are dropped by ex-Soviet transport planes and their crews, as the behest of underwriters and insurers keen to get their kidnapped boat back for $20 million rather than cough up $100 million to the owner on a replacement-new-for-old basis. I also describe the ways in which the drops are made, through a network of international blue-chips and charter agents, cargo airlines and fixers.

The fact that this money goes towards the purchase of assault rifles and rocket launchers (typically Russian-made Kalashnikovs and Strelas favoured by the pirates and Al-Shabab alike) should come as no surprise. These men are not Robin Hoods. They do not distribute their booty to the poor. Much of what they make is reinvested into the tools of their chosen trade: Russian-made assault weapons, terror in neighbouring countries (such as the World Cup blasts in Kampala, Uganda, organised by Al Shabab, with whom many of the pirates have a casually collaborative relationship sustained by their mutual pursuit of money) and the selective blindness of the authorities.

This brings us back to those humanitarian flights. The fact is, many carry illicit arms as well as aid, and others drop parachute-ready strongboxes full of crisp unmarked dollar bills, courtesy of insurance giants on Wall Street, the City of London and elsewhere, on their inbound journeys. High-demand goods, freshly minted cash, and AK-47s, on the same flights into a country in the grip of civil war. This, to quote one arms-trafficking monitor I spoke to recently, is “a dirty little secret in [our] world.”

Then again, to suggest the aid agencies and UN, the men who bring the cash and relief supplies in and the people who distribute it, are all simple angels of mercy may be naive too. The blindness many well-meaning outsiders display in the face of their own complicity is staggering now, as it was 19 years ago. And its description reads just as fresh. Back in 1992, in the report at the head of this entry, Johnson-Thomas wrote: “Ubiquitous gunmen control every aspect of life in Somalia and there is no sign that the supply of arms is drying up… Since every visitor – be he aid worker, UN official or journalist – has to hire his own bodyguards from there same gunmen, it is essential to get their support even to travel to the gun market.”

I am watching the footage from today’s news now. Footage of starving families. Aid workers imploring the world to sit up, take notice, give, do something. Analysts calling for Al Shabab to lift its decree banning foreign aid. Al Shabab claiming reports of a famine are “pure propaganda”. And I ask, what if – as in Ireland under the British, as in 1980s Ethiopia, as in early 1990s Somalia – the nuances are being lost amid the noise? What if the truth is, the economics of the disastrous interplay of rebels, desperate people, aid agencies, the UN, media and government, has turned a drought into a spiralling vortex of dollars and death?

The report finishes. The gunmen are nowhere to be seen. Nor are the pirates. Nor the aircrews, fixers, looters, corrupt officials.

But to ignore them – to talk about famine and relief in isolation – is perhaps the biggest, blackest, most deadly lie of all. Only a BBC report from Somalia today, 23rd July 2011 contains the barest hint of the fatal cloud of dollars and déja vu that is laying the country and its people to waste: “Most Western aid agencies quit Somalia in 2009 following al-Shabab’s threats, though some say they have managed to continue operating through local partners.”

Until the focus shifts from aid alone to exactly who those “local partners” are, and the part they play in the Somali tragedy, we may as well switch off the news, power down and keep reading, over and over again, our one yellowing copy of The Observer, dated October 18th, 1992.

Update: an edited version of this article with links to the book’s Amazon page has since appeared on the Huffington Post.