Archive for July 30, 2011

Return of the Vikings

Just one of hundreds of pictures I've taken when covering the Swedish national team.

It had to happen eventually.

Having royally stuffed Sweden several times in the phoney wars that are friendly internationals, eventually my number had to come up.

Tonight, it did.

Out of the plastic bowls, the recently-retired Ronaldo curled his chubby fingers around the ball containing Ireland.

A minute or two later, it was Sweden’s turn to be plucked out of the plastic.

That Germany came out as the group’s top seed made no difference to me by that point – finally, my homeland and the land I have made my home will meet in a competitive fixture.

Even though I’ve waited so long for it to happen, given that I live in Stockholm and much of what I do is sports journalism in Scandinavia, it brings mixed feelings for me.

I know a lot of people in Swedish football, from the administrators at the very top of the game to the players themselves, as well as the journalists who follow them everywhere they go.

I sit beside them at press conferences. I ask them questions. I translate their quotes.

Most of the time they are very helpful and hospitable (unless they’re called Marcus Leifby, Sportbladet’s puckish prankster number one, who has a habit of publishing private e-mails).

99% of them happily answer the phone at any hour of the day or night to answer questions or help out in any way they can. They are true supporters of Swedish football

But like them I love my national team too, and probably more so than any club side.

My interest in soccer comes not from reading Shoot! or watching “Match of the Day”, but from listening to  crackling radio commentaries and reports from Ireland’s qualifying heroics in the pre-Jack Charlton era, when we were always the bridesmaids, never the bride.

And on the few occasions we looked like walking up the aisle we’d be cruelly jilted on the way to the church- until Gary McKay scored against Bulgaria and we finally made it to a major championship.

As most of my work is for a major news agency, it has to be impartial; I’m not allowed to wave the national flag, which is not a condition my Swedish colleagues labour under. Whereas they are sometimes encouraged to cheerlead for their team, I have to bite my tongue.

Having said all that, I get almost as much joy from watching the “blågula landslaget”, especially when they put it up to bigger nations like Germany and Argentina. Lest we forget, this is a country with a long and proud history in the world’s most popular sport, and has contested a World Cup final on home soil.

I like Erik Hamrén and the sometimes surly Zlatan. I’m not convinced he’s as good as my Swedish colleagues think, but he’s not nearly as bad as the English-speaking press make out either.

Nor are the Irish the simple, industrial footballers that most Swedes seem to believe we are, either. Despite passing them to death in a couple of friendlies, they still believe that our only tactics ares physicality and the long ball.

Which means the two games between Ireland and Sweden are going to be very interesting indeed.

But even more than the football, they give us a great opportunity to get to know one another better, and not just when it comes to football.

The Irish can show the Swedes that we are not just a bunch of hard-drinking, long-ball-punting West Brits, and the Swedes can show the Irish the warmth and friendliness one would never suspect from their flat-pack furniture.

And in doing so we can enjoy the spectacle of what the greatest game in the world is all about- skill and passion and daring and excitement.

And making damn sure Germany don’t get to Brazil.

Believe it. It happened.

Just one of the hundreds of thousands of roses at the Oslo gathering on July 25.

The discussion about what happened in Oslo and Utoya will continue for days and months and years, but already at this point change needs to happen.

When we talk about it, we need to stop saying “it’s unbelievable”, “it’s without reason” and “who would do such a thing?”.

Believe it. It happened.

We know who did it.

And however twisted, there were reasons.

Though it’s a term I’ve used myself, we need to stop characterising Anders Behring Breivik as a madman.

That’s not because he wasn’t, but because every time we describe him as one we are absolving ourselves of our responsibility to understand why he did what he did.

No more than Mohammed Atta, Bin Laden or Timothy McVeigh, Breivik didn’t just fall out of the sky.

He is the product of a family, a school, a church, a university. He had friends, he likes soccer and he worked out.

But he went a little further than the rest of us. He went further than the vast majority of people could in their worst nightmares imagine.

Somewhere along the line, something awakened a hatred of his fellow man in him – not just a hatred of Muslims.

He hated all of those whose politics differed from his, even if they were mere children. He sentenced them to death.

He executed them.

What is unique about Breivik is that he wants us to understand what he did. Unlike many mass murderers, especially those who have gone on shooting sprees, he did not take his own life, but instead surrendered to police.

He can now be interviewed, studied, analysed. He can explain his motivation to us.

And in his staggering arrogance, he has even given us a 1500-page explanation of his entire ideology and method – meant to inspire others to follow in his footsteps, it is vital ammunition in the fight against all violent extremists, and not just those of the anti-Islamic far right.

He will give us even more. What he longs for most of all is to speak from the dock, with the world’s press present, to put forward his ideology to the world.

He sees himself as a martyr to his cause, yet somehow he remains blind to the remarkable similarities between himself and the radical Islamists and “cultural Marxist” bogeymen he claims he wants to destroy.

Breivik claims in his writing that he has spent the last nine years planning this attack.

Nine and a half years ago, in September 2001, two planes struck the Twin Towers in Manhattan.

Anders Behring Breivik was probably sitting in front of his television, listening to the pundits telling him that what he was seeing was “unbelievable”, “without reason” and “impossible to understand”.

“Who would do such a thing?” they asked.

When Anders found out that it was radical Islamists, he believed it. He found a reason.

Then he sent out on a path that led him to Utoeya.

To stop others – on both sides – following his path, we need to understand.

We need to believe it. We need to accept that there are people who do such things.

We need to realise that, even though they are madmen, they are someone’s father or son or husband.

And we need to find a way to stop them coming to the same extreme convictions that Breivik has.

A minute’s silence not enough for some

Norwegian emergency services interrupt their work to honour the dead, 1200, July 25 2011.

At 1200 today Scandinavia stood still.

A minute’s silence was observed, to honour those that fell in Oslo and Utoeya, victims of the bombs and bullets of Anders Behring Breivik.

But some have been silent an awful lot longer than that.

While Siv Jensen, leader of Fremsrkittspartiet (the Progress Party, Norway’s right-wing anti-immigration party) was quick to distance herself and her party from their former party colleague’s actions, others barely put their head above the parapet.

Take Jimmie Åkesson for instance.

One might expect the leader of the far-right Sweden Democrats – the Swedish answer to Fremskrittspartiet – to try to distance himself and his party from Breivik’s actions.

Their reaction so far has been one press release, one tweet to publicise said press release, and after that – nothing.

Total silence.

Nowhere on the party’s website does Jimmie or the party encourage the membership or supporters to take part in the minute’s silence.

Indeed, the only mention of the tragedy on the Twitter feeds I’ve seen is in reaction to those who try to shine a light on them.

Uniformly, their response is to accuse those who disagree with them of being “tasteless” – a very interesting choice of words from the people who made this election ad for TV (article continues below):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XkRRdth8AHc]

One would think that, as leader of a far-right party that undeniably shares many of Breivik’s views, Åkesson might take the opportunity to express his condolences and try to put some daylight between his party and the hateful, illogical philosophy of Islamophobia that drove the gunman to such deeds.

Instead, nothing.

The vacuum of Åkesson’s silence allows plenty of room for speculation as to why he and his party have chosen to remain silent.

The reason is not hard to work out – Breivik’s actions have presumably not affected him or the party’s policies in the slightest.

His far-right convictions and his Islamophobia – the irrational fear of Muslims – remain untouched by what has happened in Norway.

If the reactions of some of his supporters to a blog post on the Moderate party website are anything to go by, this is in fact a validation of what they believe. Muslims are, as always, to blame.

It’s not so long ago that Åkesson was writing in Aftonbladet about how Islam was the greatest threat to Swedish and European civilisation.

He trotted out the same tired lies about how Sweden was the rape capital of the world, and that Muslims were over-represented in crime statistics.

That the Swedish police make or keep no record of a criminal’s religion or ethnicity was ignored. He was making it up.

His words about “Sweden’s multicultural elite” are echoed in the madman’s manifesto, released by Breivik moments before he changed Norway forever.

Those frightened by Åkesson’s words ran to the ballot box and put an X beside his name.

The rest of us opened our windows and looked outside; not seeing hordes of Mohammedan rapists pillaging their way through our communities, we voted for someone else.

If Jimmie and the rest are serious about being democrats, they and anyone who has or would consider voting for them have a responsiblity to take an honest look back over their public pronouncements and their policies.

The time has come for everyone in politics to abandon the extremist rhetoric, to stop the hunt for the paper tigers and instead focus on what brings us together, rather than what sets us apart.

For just as Anders Behring Breivik is not representative of Norway, of her people, of Christianity or of conservative politics, nor can it be said that any one individual is representative of Islam, or any other religion, or anything else for that matter.

But as their elected leader, Jimmie does represent the Sweden Democrats, and at the moment his silence his saying more than he thinks.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”- Edmund Burke. 

The longest night

For some, it won’t start until after the last of the funerals are over.

For others, it will start when they close their eyes and try to sleep.

Tonight, many of the survivors will have returned to their homes, spread all over Norway and separated from many of their comrades.

No longer will they be in the company of those with whom they shared the nightmare.

They have come back to a world that does not – and cannot – understand.

They will feel the joy and relief of having made it back to their families alive, of seeing loved ones that, for a couple of hours on Friday afternoon, they thought they would never see again.

But when the lights go out, many of them will see the faces of those who didn’t make it.

The desperate faces of their friends who fell all around them as they tried to escape the madman’s bullets.

The anguish and the fear and the helplessness they felt on the island will return with full force.

Why did they survive, when so many others fell?

Why did he not single them out for execution?

Is it even worth going on when so many they knew and loved are now gone forever?

For some, there will be shame.

Did I push someone out of the way as I scrambled for survival?

Did I slow someone down?

Is there an empty bed in an empty room in some other family’s house tonight because of what I did to survive?

Others will lie in hospital beds, recovering from their wounds and thinking of how close they came to losing the most precious thing they have.

They will remember lying still with the dead all around them, desperately trying not to breathe as he walked among them.

Flinching as the phone rang in their pocket, longing to answer it but knowing that if they were to pick it up, it could be the last thing they ever did.

For many, this will be the first night of many where such thoughts steal their way in through the darkness.

Some will soon get over it. Many will carry it forever.

For this is what terrorism does.

And this is why it cannot be allowed to win.

The beginning or the end?

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

Having spent most of the night reading Anders Behring Breivik’s monocultural manifesto, everything is much clearer.

And much as 9/11 was a defining moment for radical Islam, this is a defining moment for what Breivik calls “cultural conservatism” and the far right in Europe.

It is both easy and lazy to dismiss his actions of those of a madman – and many media outlets have already done so – but this only serves to further his cause.

Breivik’s actions in Oslo and Utoeya may be those of a madman, but they also amount to a bold play for dominance of the doctrine and dogma of the European far right.

In doing so, he is sending two messages – one to the vast majority of us, and the other to those who share his beliefs.

For those of us that recoil in horror from his actions, his racism, his fascist tendencies and his violence, his message is fear. He wants us to be afraid of the consequences of not following his path.

For those who agree with him, his message is inspiration and hope – he hopes that they will see his example and note that it can be done, if they follow his 1500-page manifesto that was nine years in the making.

But like Bin Laden, that is where he is wrong.

9/11 may have been the greatest “victory” in the history of radical Islam, but it also marked the beginning of the end.

For in poking the hornets’ nest, Al Quaeda provoked a retaliation that has been both comprehensive and brutal. Radical Islam as envisioned by Bin Laden is all but over.

So too with Breivik. What he hopes will be the first shots in the final battle with multiculturalism could well prove to be the first nail in the coffin of the hard-right ideology embodied by the likes of the Progress Party, the True Finns and the Sweden Democrats.

Whether he meant to or not, he has now become the focus point for Scandinavia’s hard right, and his actions will poison the waters for those who share some, if not all, of his ideas.

His writings betray his madness, his vanity and arrogance, but also an immense intelligence.

He has clearly thought about and planned this for a very long time, and the courage of his convictions is not in doubt.

But as with those he seeks to inspire, his problem is a democratic one. We do not recognise the picture of “Muslim occupation in Europe” that they try to paint, and we simply do not agree with what it is that they want to achieve.

After the massacre there is no doubt we are afraid. But we are not cowed. We will not be silenced.

We should not try to surpress his ideas or his writings, just as we have not banned “Mein Kampf” and other radical anti-democratic texts.

The only way to stop ideologies like the hatred preached by Breivik is to bring them out into the light, analyse them and try to understand where they come from. Only then can we show them up for what they are.

Only then can we begin to meet their baseless arguments and groundless fears head-on.

Only then can we teach our children that history’s biggest lesson for mankind is that hatred never produced anything worth having.

Despite the horrors of the last few days the Nobel Peace Price should be staying in Norway this year, and it should be given to prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.

For it was he that, amidst the sobs at the memorial service in Oslo’s Domkyrke this morning, showed us a glimpse of the future as he echoed the words of one of the survivors of Breivik’s massacre at Utoeya.

“If one man can show so much hate, imagine how much love we can show together”.

Amen.

This is not 9/11- this is Norway’s Omagh

The tweet to the right was posted 15 hours ago.

I’ve never been more disappointed to be proved right.

But as the story of the bomb and gun attacks in Norway continues to unfold, it is important to maintain a sense of calm in the eye of the storm, because some of the comparisons being made by the talking TV heads are fundamentally wrong.

This is not Norway’s 9/11.

That particular atrocity was perpetrated by fundamentalists who wished to strike fear into the hearts of Americans and take their revenge for perceived wrongs in the Middle East and Asia.

What has happened in Norway appears to be the polar opposite.

The seven people in Oslo and the (to date) 84 victims at Utoeya were killed by one of their own – a 32-year-old “ethnic Norwegian” (to borrow the casually racist phrase being bandied about last night by the media) with strong nationalist opinions.

This was not Norway’s 9/11.

This was Norway’s Omagh.

Reading the political musings of Anders Behring Breivik, it’s clear what he thought about multiculturalism, Marxism and what he ironically calls “hate ideologies”.

He is not a right-wing extremist in the traditional Scandinavian sense of the “white power” movement, and I’d say even the Sweden Democrats will find it hard to find any positives in his actions.

But this is a young man whose intellectual convictions are well thought-out – and like the Real IRA, they are utterly out of step with the rest of Norwegian society.

Like the Real IRA, he found it impossible to accept the democratically-expressed will of his countrymen, who have repeatedly voted for a peaceful, open, democratic society.

And like the Real IRA, his frustration boiled over into violence of the most shocking and barbaric kind.

One can only hope that, like the Real IRA, his actions force the rest of the Norwegian people, even those of like mind, to recoil in horror – and to redouble their democratic efforts for a better, more open society.

Terror comes to the quietest town

The first thing you think of at times like this is your friends and colleagues.

A few weeks ago I was sitting in the pissing rain marvelling at the enthusiasm of my Norwegian colleagues as the Diamond League came to town.

We were in the press room, and I and everyone else not born with gills was complaining about the incessant rain. Not the Norwegians.

Even Usain Bolt was non-plussed by the weather- “I’m a sunshine boy,” he said, answering a question about the rain with a look of distaste.

But the natives are used to working in adversity and I was hopeful that my friends and colleagues were uninjured.

That Diamond League night I was working with Kurt, and it was with great relief that I heard his voice asking a question at a press conference in the aftermath of what appears to have been a car bomb in the heart of the government district in Oslo this afternoon.

A check on the Reuters wire showed that Alister was alive and well and tapping away on his keyboard just a couple of blocks from where the city was torn in two.

Micke and Siri will show up too – pros that they are, they won’t be answering anything that is not from their producers or their families. For all I know it’s their pictures I’m seeing on the screen.

An offer to go and help out on the ground has been politely turned down so far- this is a big story, and already the big guns (for want of a better word) are being sent in to cover it.

It’s too early to say who is behind what appears to be the most pointless terrorist attack to date, but it won’t be long before the mud is thrown.

I’m not sure I care who is behind it just yet either.

What is more important is that the authorities get the situation sorted out and that the people don’t shut down their open, democratic society in the wake of this atrocity.

This is, after all, the country that sponsors the Nobel Peace Prize, a country well-respected in it’s efforts to bring peace to the Middle East (not least via the Oslo Accords) and to Sri Lanka.

As I watch the footage – hopefully shot by my friends and colleagues in Norwegian media – of debris and damage on the streets which I walked a couple of weeks ago, I hope that whoever did this is watching too.

And I hope they realise the futility of what they did.

Because if you feel that you have to blow up bombs on the streets of the quietest, most peaceful capital in the world to make your point, then your cause is not worth fighting for.

Here no evil, see no evil, click no evil

When I tweeted a link to a Guardian article and put it on my Facebook page I didn’t intend it to be an experiment, but due to the resounding silence that greeted it, it kind of turned out that way.

And the results were very interesting.

I was about to head for bed on Sunday night when I came across the article, which was about the use of rape as a weapon of war, primarily in Africa.

What was unusual about this article was the subject.

It concerned the systematic rape, not of women but of men in various conflicts, and the physical, psychological and cultural fallout from this most unspeakable of crimes, with a particular focus on Uganda.

Perhaps understandably, the “Like” button on my Facebook page next to the link remains unclicked.

What I found more interesting was that no-one among the four hundred or so people who regularly see my messages on Twitter had anything to say whatsoever. Not a response or a retweet of any kind came my way.

As always with the subject of male rape, it was met with silence.

Nor did Margot Wallström, the Swedish politician and UNHCR figure mentioned in the article, respond to the tweet I sent her in the hope that she would go into more detail on the subject.

To put it all in context, a tweet about David Norris a couple of months ago made its way around the world as everyone from gay activists to right-wing evangelical Christians wrestled with the meaning of pederasty, and the Norris presidential campaign replied to me in person.

Unfortunately I’m not aware of any mechanism that would allow me to see who or how many people actually clicked on the link to the male rape article.

I’m guessing a lot of people did, looked at the headline and went “no, this is not for me”.

Which is a shame, because the only way such unspeakable, unthinkable evil can be understood and dealt with is if it is dragged from the shadows and given the full scrutiny it deserves.

Like the more “standard” version of rape (for want of a better term), the sense of shame must be removed altogether from those who suffer it and placed firmly where it belongs with the perpetrators.

Interestingly, a fabricated story about Muammar Ghaddafi’s troops being given Viagra and condoms and told to go rape everything they saw during the recent uprising in Libya was given great credence and exposure by the media.

When it was subsequently pointed out that there was no evidence whatsoever that this had taken place, it was quietly ignored.

This, coupled with the muted response to the Guardian article, says a lot about our attitudes to rape, especially when it is used as a weapon.

We still don’t want to think of men as being the victims. Men themselves (me included) don’t like to countenance the idea that this happens, even less so that it could happen to them.

It calls into question everything we believe about men in society – that they should be strong and resilient and warrior-like, and never supine or vulnerable or humiliated.

The article in question is well worth ten minutes of your time, and not just because it puts this unspeakable, unthinkable subject on the agenda.

It represents a chance to see rape for what it really is – a crime that has little or nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.

And if enough people read it, maybe we will begin to realize that the only innocent party that has anything to be ashamed of is a society that still blames its victims.

Expect everything- but change

Rupert Murdoch- no longer scary

It’s hard to get through an hour – never mind a day – without coming across some media scribe daring to think the unthinkable.

As the News International commentators desperately try to avoid feeding on their own corpse, the Guardian is leading the charge into a previously-unthinkable situation- that of a Brave New Murdoch-free Media world.

It might prove to be a better place but I would sincerely doubt it, as there will be no change as to how the media, in particular in Britain, does its business.

Remember the other institution in the not-too-distant past that was too big to fail?

The collapse of Lehmann Brothers sent shockwaves around the world, because for once a vested interest was allowed to drown in the pit of its own greed and stupiditiy.

We were told that never again will a bank be allowed to get into such a position.

Having displayed the same traits, there is every chance now that News International will go the same way, and if last week’s flight of the shareholders continues it could become the media equivalent of a run on the bank.

The once all-powerful Murdoch will be left with nothing- no company, no power and no respect (his reputation doesn’t matter because he never really had one worth defending).

But despite all the “never again” waffle around the collapse of Lehmann’s, little has changed.

Banks are still taking huge risks and passing them on to their customers. Needless to say, they only pass on a fraction of the profits from these risks, and they are more than happy to allow other investors and taxpayers to foot the bill when it all goes wrong.

So too with the media. Murdoch, whose media outlets had precious little credibility to begin with, has now completely lost his air of invincibility.

His continued clumsy attempts to manipulate not just the media, but also the police and politicians have made him so toxic that even those he put in power are running away from the mushroom cloud of poison that surrounds him.

Still, nothing has changed. Confining themselves to covering the collapse of Murdoch’s empire, the press do not speak of regulation or investigation of practices across the board – only in connection to News International.

Because in truth, they do not wish to have the whole sorry story of how they do business dragged out into the light.

If they did, it would mean the end of the “source close to the player/celebrity/victim”.

It would mean an end to hanging around outside hospital smoking areas offering cash to nurses and cops in return for information.

It would mean an end to taking a single sentence and spinning it harder and faster than a Major League baseball pitcher.

It would mean writing about actual news, instead of making stuff up on a whim. And that would be nigh-on impossible.

The media, and in particular those active in the tabloid newspaper sector, have created a monster made up of millions of readers who crave news about Cheryl Tweedy, Ryan Giggs and Gordon Brown’s sick child.

It is a ravenous monster that needs feeding every day.

It cannot be caged, and it isn’t even in their interest to do so. Hence the lack of desire for real change.

So what will happen?

It’s very possible that Cameron will resign, as will Murdoch junior. Brooks could well go to prison for a while along with a few others.

And Murdoch himself will go quietly into the night, becoming the Bernie Madoff of the media, whose empire was built on a lunatic Ponzi scheme of ever-greater lies and deception.

But change and regulation in journalism will be notable only by their absence, and we will return to the insanity of allowing the media to do what they always did, all the while expecting a different result.

And like the banks after Lehmann Brothers, News International will become a footnote in history, a cautionary tale of what can happen when you sail too close to the wind.

Then it will be business as usual again.

Wind turbine jobs just so much hot air

Enda- getting Ireland working by announcing the same jobs over and over again...

Just when the world was starting to lose faith in the fourth estate, Lorna Siggins goes and does something we can all be proud of- exposing Enda Kenny’s cheap PR stunt as he basked in the glow of 145 “new” jobs that were actually announced two years ago.

If News International, Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch personify all that is wrong with the media, Kenny and his spin doctors have shown another seedy side of the business of communications.

As anyone who has ever had a manager will testify, there are always people who will opportunistically try to take credit for something they had nothing to do with.

Following a week where he has been kicked from pillar to post over A&E units in places like Roscommon, Enda and his staff have been flailing around desperately for a bit of good news to take him into the weekend on a high note.

But this is basket-case Ireland, and the banks “passing” their stress tests (no surprises there as they were essentially allowed to Tipp-Ex out all the bad debts they have) was never going to be enough.

So as he headed off to NUI Galway someone, somewhere in Enda’s office dusted down the press release from the CF Manufacturing group and lo and behold, 145 “new” jobs were created.

Except they weren’t – or if they were, they were being created for a second time.

CF had announced their intention to create these jobs two years ago. A swing and another embarrassing miss for Enda.

So all credit to Lorna Siggins of the Irish Times, who resisted the temptation to go rummaging through Robbie Keane’s rubbish and instead broke an important story about a government desperate for a decent headline.

And no credit at all to Enda, who is no doubt spending a lot of his time pondering the political fate of Garret Fitzgerald.

The recently-deceased Fitzgerald was the last Taoiseach who did what Kenny now has to do, namely administer an awful lot of bitter economic medicine to the Irish people, with no spoonful of sugar on offer to help it down.

The Irish electorate slaughtered Fitzgerald at the polls, denying one of the two world-class statesmen Ireland has had since the war (the other is John Hume) the chance to harvest the fruit of his hard political labour.

Kenny is now in the same boat, and his desire not to go down the same road as Garret is understandable.

But instead of blowing off a load of hot air about the wind turbine jobs, he would be better advised to harness the disparate state agencies charged with accelerating Ireland’s recovery and insist that they work together, rather than separately, towards the common goal of getting Ireland working again.

I know he has tried, but as with many big organisations, the message goes through many changes as it goes down through the ranks, and on the ground little has changed for those tasked with finding us tourists and investors and buyers.

(Apart, of course, from the fact that their budgets have been slashed, making the job of selling a badly run economic mess harder than ever before).

But if he can succeed in this task, he will have an awful lot more than 145 new jobs to announce to the Irish people next time he opens something at a university.