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The ignorance and hypocrisy behind the moral panic over Oxfam

2018 February 20
by Paul Vallely


A quarter of a million poor people paid the price within a few days after The Times published its exposé of parties with prostitutes held by a few Oxfam aid workers in disaster-torn Haiti in 2011. Oxfam’s partner, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, swiftly announced it was suspending funding for a joint project which benefits 250,000 people in Iraq, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A few days afterwards the British government insisted that the country’s biggest international development charity must stop bidding for taxpayers money until ministers are “satisfied” the charity “can meet the high standards we expect”.

A lot is at stake. Last year the UK government gave Oxfam £31.7m, almost 10% of the charity’s funding. More than 7,000 private individuals have cancelled their Oxfam direct debits. Corporate donors have expressed concern. Commentators dramatically describe Oxfam as “on a life-support machine” and “in a struggle for its very existence”. Analysts fear that the scandal could hit donations all across the entire charity sector. But many right-wing politicians are going further, suggesting that the scandal calls into question the very future of the British aid budget which they have long attacked as overgenerous in a time of austerity. Yet the ensuing debate has been characterised by ignorance, muddled thinking, falsehoods and hypocrisy. “It’s a moral panic,” one aid veteran told me, “there is no nuance and no balance in the reaction”.

What Oxfam did wrong – and right

Seven years ago a whistleblower reported to Oxfam’s head office that a culture of bullying, intimidation, pornography and sexual exploitation existed in its office in Haiti. Investigators flew from Oxford and sacked four employees for gross misconduct and told three others to resign. It reported all this to the British Department for International Development, and its regulator the Charity Commission. It even issued a press release about the sackings which was carried by the BBC, though it spoke only of misconduct, omitting the sexual detail. It then established a Head of Safeguarding and created a whistleblowing hotline, onto which allegations began anonymously to be reported. It sent safeguarding trainers out into the field and began listing sexual harassment incidents in its annual public report.

What it did not do was report the offenders to the police, either in Haiti, where prostitution is illegal, or back in seven countries from which the aid workers came. (None were British) . It did not inform other aid agencies of the identity of the offenders to prevent them working elsewhere. And it was slow in giving its head of safeguarding the resources she needed to deal with the level of complaints flooding in to the whistleblowing hotline. Then when the story broke its senior management team were not transparent in their response, allowing the details to seep damagingly out in dribs and drabs. Instead of immediately owning up and apologising, Oxfam’s response seemed reluctant, clumsy and maladroit, with its chief executive, Mark Goldring, complaining that criticism of the charity was “out of proportion”, bizarrely adding that Oxfam workers had not “murdered babies in their cots”. It only drew more withering criticism. Oxfam, one critic said, had become “the Harvey Weinstein of aid”.

Oxfam was not alone in its culpability. It turned out that officials from DfID and the Charity Commission failed to enquire into the nature of the gross misconduct. “In those days DfID were only interested in details relating to fraud and the misuse of their money,” the head of one British aid agency told me. “They have changed the game now.” The #MeToo moment, in the wake of reports of sexual harassment and discrimination in Hollywood, Parliament, the BBC, football and the wider workplace”has brought safeguarding onto their agenda”. As for the Charities Commission, which has had its budget slashed by a third recently, another senior aid worker said, “is largely a passive recipient of annual filings rather than an active watchdog which would have acted if Oxfam’s disclosures had been more detailed”.

Oxfam made serious mistakes. Its peers in other aid agencies accept that. Yet they are also convinced the timing and ferocity of the criticism of the charity is a deliberate strategy as part of a whole attack on aid. Half a dozen senior figures in the aid world told me that Oxfam is being attacked because of its political campaigning. “The Right hates Oxfam because it is a voice for the voiceless,” one agency head said. “It doesn’t just help poor people it asks why they are poor.” Oxfam has, in recent times, criticised benefit cuts, zero-hours contracts, tax havens and asked why most of the globe’s new wealth has gone to the richest 1% of the population. “Oxfam is a target because it speaks out and challenges government policies. Oxfam hasn’t handled all this as well as it could have. But it feels like the attack on them is an ideologically-driven attack. It is designed to undermine the moral authority which is what gives Oxfam its ability to campaign against inequality and dispossession”.

That first Times story – one in no fewer than 50 anti-Oxfam articles it has published over just 10 days – came just as the new darling of the Conservative Right, the prominent parliamentary Catholic, Jacob Rees-Mogg, presented a petition to Downing Street on behalf of a Daily Express ”crusade” entitled “Stop the foreign aid madness” – a sentiment which runs counter to decades of Catholic Social Teaching on aid endorsed by popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis who has preached “responsibility for the poor and the marginalized must … be an essential element of any political decision”. By contrast the Tory Right wants, under cover of austerity, to slash the aid budget and the commitment enshrined in law by David Cameron to give 0.7% of our national income to help the world’s poorest people. They want the cash to be diverted to the NHS or the welfare budgets.

Perverse politics

This makes little economic sense. To halve the aid budget would save £7bn which would make small impact on the £155bn cost of the NHS or the massive £252bn benefits and pensions bill. Set against that, British aid has contributed to the wiping out of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, the halving of deaths from malaria and has saved the lives of 5 million children each year who would otherwise have died from diarrhoeal diseases.

Of course it’s not really about the figures. Cutting aid is a visceral political instinct rather than an economic calculation for the ideological Right. To them the 0.7pc is the last remnant of the one-nation Cameron project they so despise. It tunes into the Brexit psyche . As one aid agency chief put it : “However much we argue that aid is effective it doesn’t cut through effectively – just as in the Brexit debate it doesn’t work to talk about the economic damage. People have heard those arguments and discounted them.” Brexiteers who say they want Britain to take a greater role on the world stage seem not to see that halving our foreign aid will diminish Britain’s role as a moral actor on the world stage.

Does aid work?

Politics is not the only muddle. There is also much confusion over what they mean by aid. Those on the right love to quote free-marketeers like the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo whose book Dead Aid claims that aid does more harm than good and has never created a single job. I’ve seen with my own eyes the evidence on the ground in Africa, everywhere from Ethiopia and Kenya to Mozambique and Uganda, which gives the lie to that. Moyo fails to distinguish correlation from causation and generalises from the worst examples – a familiar tactic of the ideological right. She complains that the rich world has fruitlessly sent a fabulous $1 trillion to Africa over the past 50 years – failing to do the maths which shows that this is just $16 a year for each person. Hardly princely.

In any case, the vast majority of development economists insist that, contrary to the assertions of the ideologues, aid is effective. Three decades ago Robert Cassen et al, in their magisterial study Does Aid Work? – which The Economist called “the most exhaustive study of aid ever undertaken” and “the standard reference on the subject” – showed that all serious analysis reveals that most aid succeeds and obtains a reasonable rate of return. The average return on aid investments in Africa exceeds 20%, the World Bank says. (Curiously Moyo and many of her fellow doubters never even refer to the Cassen study). Ten years ago Cassen’s work was brought up to date by Roger C. Riddell with another massive study, Does Foreign Aid Really Work? which came to much the same conclusion – that between 75% and 90% of project aid does work, though it could be done much better, and that in general aid does make a positive contribution to economic growth and reducing poverty, though it is often hard for it to reach the very poorest people. Britain’s aid is particularly effective and well-targeted, according to Owen Barder of the Centre for Global Development.

Most recently a study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research, which surveyed all peer-reviewed academic research on aid and growth published since 2008, reported that the evidence that aid boosts economic growth is itself growing rapidly. The Economist, long sceptical of aid now agree that most evidence shows that aid boosts growth. And the Brookings Institution, America’s leading think tank, says that pointing to failed aid projects – of which there are plenty – and extrapolating that therefore aid generically doesn’t work is like pointing to companies which go bankrupt and saying that proves private investment doesn’t work. One of its senior fellows, Steve Radlett, concludes: “There is lots of evidence from independent research showing the positive impacts of aid on development and raising living standards. As this evidence has grown in recent years… the major debates about aid have shifted from the outdated “does aid work” to much more helpful questions about how aid mechanisms could be strengthened further and how they should evolve in a rapidly changing world”. Aid is not enough, of course. Long-term development also depends on strong economic, civic and political institutions – and on peace – but aid helps significantly

Local and international values

Those who object to development aid often say they have no problem with humanitarian emergency relief after a disaster, which constitutes only 10% of total aid flows. It’s ironic, then, that they are now seizing on humanitarian relief on Haiti as an example of aid failure. The complaints about the behaviour of handful of Oxfam employees proceed on the same basis – by extrapolating the exceptional and hinting that it is commonplace. A scandal is a scandal precisely because it violates the usual norms, not exemplifying them.

The current debate fails to take account of the differences between relief and development. Inside Oxfam there are four different cultures rooted in its centres of operation: emergency work, long-term development, advocacy and fundraising. Each requires a different skill-set and creates a different value-set. Fundraisers are always keen on using sad pictures of desperate children. Development workers, fired up by a more optimistic vision of partnership and empowerment, want the opposite. (Oxfam’s pioneering work on gender in development comes from that latter group). Those in the advocacy unit are political. Those working in relief have a distinct go-getting macho approach.

As one veteran aid worker put it: “Operational people in emergencies are very much ‘Cut the crap you snowflakes, we’ve got to get this done’. In disasters and conflicts you do sometimes need a more testosterone-loaded approach. You’re dealing with warlords, crises and corrupt officials”. Mike Jennings, of the School of Oriental and African Studies, says that bad behaviour is far more likely to emerge in chaotic, lawless, violent emergency situations: “You have extremely vulnerable people… and a few people who are effectively controlling access to resources, or have huge amounts of power. Whenever you have those inequalities and variances in power, you have scope for abuse.” But it can be tricky to bring in a soldier who has been a logistics expert in the army and expect him to leave his soldiering culture behind. This is the brand of aid workers who behaved so badly in Haiti. Finding ways of getting them to embrace the gender models of their colleagues who have been pioneers in the role of women in development is a key problem for Oxfam.

In development work the aid sector is moving to a “localisation” model, empowering local people to do the work which was once done by expats. Emergency work is adopting that approach only more slowly. “The old model of the white saviour coming in to help the poor blacks is a mentality which remains seductive,” said Chris Bain, the head of Cafod. “We’ve got to move away from that. From day one of a disaster you can either build local capacity or undermine it – and disasters are an ‘opportunity for change’.”

Yet localisation throws up different problems, of culture and of embracing internationalist values which may be alien to it. The academic Mary Beard got in trouble for venturing onto this turf recently; she was condemned on Twitter as a subtle racist and neo-colonialist after observing “how hard it must be to sustain ‘civilised’ values in a disaster zone” and later adding “I am amazed that after decades of Lord of the Flies being a GCSE English set book we haven’t got the point about the breakdown of morality in danger zones!” The internationalisation of Oxfam has empowered people in the south, said one former Oxfam executive, but there is a downside; it increases the complexity of relationships; and it can create problems with the import of local cultures which can be out of sync with those of a contemporary international organisation with its root in the latest developments in Western values. As the writer and activist Michael Edwards puts it: “There are no saints in the global South either”. Oxfam has said it ran training courses in high-risk countries in 2014 “to help our staff know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behaviour.”

Sexual confusion

The third area of confusion is over sex. The central row in Haiti was over the use of prostitutes. But it has become muddled with the issue of the sexual harassment of female Oxfam employees by their male colleagues. Social mores shift on such issues. Oxfam’s policy on the use of prostitutes by aid workers was drawn up in 2006 when the dominant development issue was human rights. It said that the organisation would “strongly discourage” their workers from paying for sex but refusing to ban staff from using prostitutes saying it would “infringe their civil liberties”.

In today’s more puritanical MeToo culture such a stance is easily mocked. But a senior female aid worker, with 25 years experience in the field, insists that in practical terms the 2006 policy “is still total common sense”. She adds “if an aid worker on his weekend off wants to go to the capital and visit the red light district it’s not for me to complain, so long as it’s legal and there are no underage people involved”. But in Haiti one male Oxfam worker had sex with the sister of an aid recipient: “That is unacceptable; it violates a relationship of trust, like a teacher having sex with a pupil.” And, as was made clear in questions to Oxfam executives at the Commons Select Committee on Tuesday, in a disaster zone some believe that everyone in the region is a beneficiary in the widest sense. Not everyone agrees; though some insist that prostitution is always exploitation others argue it can be a deliberate choice and therefore consensual. Attitudes vary from one country and culture to another, as does the law.

The issue of sexual harassment is related, but distinct. Ironically a major study by Tufts University on the sexual assault of aid workers shows that Oxfam is “universally” regarded as having the best policies on prevention and protection on sexual harassment. “We took our policies straight from them,” the head of another agency told me. Dr Dyan Mazurana, who conducted the Tufts research, said that the changes introduced by Oxfam after the Haiti incident – of a whistleblowing helpline, a dedicated safeguarding team and a policy of publishing data on allegations made – put Oxfam in the pioneering forefront. Ironically, she said, “once you get better reporting and investigating mechanisms in place, and people have confidence to use them, the reports are going to go up”. Seven Oxfam country directors were investigated on “safeguarding allegations” and the charity handled 87 allegations of sexual exploitation by staff in 2016-17. But for Dr Mazurana all this is a sign of progress. Of the 87 allegations, 53 were referred to the police and 33 were investigated internally with three quarters of those being upheld and resulting in disciplinary action. At the Select Committee on Tuesday the Oxfam CEO revealed that 26 more complaints have been made in recent days.

“The puritanical language around – all this talk about things being repulsive and disgusting – is revealing,” one seasoned aid worker said. “It’s part of a black-and-white view which puts aid agencies on a pedestal as people only ever do good things.” Another observed: “There is a temptation to see aid workers as secular priests, people with a high moral tone and higher standards, but we are just human like everyone else. Are people seriously saying that aid workers must become like secular monks who have to be celibate?” It may well come to that.

Moral leadership

That is not quite what Penny Mordaunt, the current Secretary of State for International Development, meant when she announced she has suspended new funding to Oxfam until it demonstrates that is capable of exhibiting “moral leadership”. That notion brought a wry smile to aid workers like Maggie Black, the author of the official history of Oxfam, who pointed out the irony of a demand for moral behaviour from a government which supplies the “made-in-Britain bombs” currently raining down on Oxfam’s work with the poor people of Yemen. Nor does it seem consonant with the corrupted vision of development articulated by Ms Mordaunt’s predecessor, Priti Patel, who was humiliatingly sacked in November after secretly discussing a deal to pass British aid money to the Israeli army. Ms Patel told The Times that she would no longer contribute to Oxfam – only for it to turn out that she had no direct debit to cancel. It was typical of the bad faith which has characterised much of the debate around the Haiti scandal.

Such double standards explain why failures of aid always seem to lead to a call to cut aid rather than reform aid. Failings in health or education do not bring calls to close the NHS or spend less on schools. Sexual harassment in Parliament or in the army does not prompt anyone to suggest abandoning those institutions. After Harvey Weinstein no one said we should shut down Hollywood and stories about predatory paedophiles in football have not made fans drop their support for Manchester City. Why, when it comes to aid, are some people so determined to throw the baby out with the bathwater? Last year Oxfam provided emergency support for 8.6 million people hit by conflict and natural disaster. Surely that is worth preserving.

An edited version of this piece appeared in The Tablet on 23rd February 2018





In defence of Thought for the Day

2017 November 3
by Paul Vallely

What should happen to Britons who return from fighting for Islamist groups in Syria or Iraq? The question was raised by a British university professor recently. His answer was that they should be killed since they’ve been fighting for the enemy in a war against us. On Thought for the Day shortly afterwards Mona Siddiqui spelled out eloquently why such an idea has no place in a civilised society, quoting the Qur’an in support of this. I usually refrain from commenting on Thought for the Day, since it is edited by my wife, but this was BBC Religion at its best, offering a measured reflection in contribution to our national civic debate.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Today programme – in which religion has a short dedicated slot, as does sport and business – its presenters gave an interview in which they launched “an extraordinary attack” on Thought for the Day, pronouncing it “inappropriate” and “deeply, deeply boring”.

Criticism of Thought for the Day is tediously commonplace but the broadside by John Humphrys and Justin Webb crossed a line, not just in terms of their startling rudeness to invited BBC contributors. Their indignation went beyond routine resentment at the intrusion into their three-hour secular news agenda of three minutes of religious reflection. Mr Humphrys’ attack seemed to be on religion in general, as he sneered: “Dear God, we’ve got to cut a really fascinating programme short because we’re now going to hear somebody tell us that Jesus was really nice…” Interesting that he chose Jesus rather than the Prophet Mohammed.

What was just as shocking was the evident inability of Humphrys & Co to see the contradiction between their intolerance of religion and their boast of open-mindedness on everything else. Challenged with having got it wrong on Brexit Mr Humphreys accepted “there’s a disconnect between the people who run the BBC and a large chunk of the population.” Justin Webb insisted he is “passionate” about “allowing people to tell their own stories. That’s what the Today programme does at its best”. And Mishal Husain added “even when we have certain views, I think all of us work really hard to find another point of view”. Today, its top team asserts, strives to present “different styles and genders”, “different voices regionally” and “different races and different classes”. But not, it seems, different religions.

So why should faith be exempted from this embrace of diversity to reflect our pluralist society. Because half the population is now not religious, asserts Mr Humphrys. Even if we accept his figures, what about the half which is religious? The BBC’s public service remit ought clearly extend to serving them – and it should see the value of explaining the nation’s varied religions to one another and to citizens of no faith.

Just as importantly it is essential that in a programme where presenters like John Humphrys often coarsen the public debate with their adversarial approach, and constant barrage of interruptions, an oasis of measured reflective civility should be maintained. Religion has a distinctive contribution to make to that. Indeed it is now more important than ever before.

  • Interestingly the majority of the population disagree with the illiberalism of the metropolitan atheist elite. See this Radio Times pollScreen Shot 2017-11-03 at 10.16.42

from The Church Times

An experiment in intergenerational reviewing: 10,000 Gestures at the Manchester International Festival

2017 July 19
by Paul Vallely

I took my 15 year-old grandson along to see Boris Charmatz’s 10,000 Gestures premiere at the Manchester International Festival.  Here’s his review, followed by the one I wrote for The Independent:


Review of 10,000 Gestures at 2017 Manchester International Festival

by Daniel Atherton

Rating:    ★★★½

This show is set in an enormous windowless former train depot. From when you first enter, its abandoned and damp feel creates a strong sense of anticipation, and an enigmatic air. The show begins with the lights dwindling in favour of small beams aligning the pillars allowing a slight amount of visibility. A woman in red enters the stage, acting erratically and moving unnaturally. Breathing in and out heavily and speaking nonsense sentences as the music (Mozart’s Requiem) grows louder.

Suddenly, all other cast members rush into view, all dressed differently, some half naked, others in strange costumes. They echo the violent grace of the woman in red introducing the theme of frenzy and lack of reason but do so with precision. There is a good deal of shouting, writhing and screaming, occasional random phrases like ‘I have a dream, I still have a dream’ (an allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.) and also ‘God is the greatest’ in Arabic, reflecting modern day issues like inequality and terrorism. There is also a deal of pointing and making signs with their hands. A theme of death and negativity created by the music and amplified by the violent and aggressive actions sets a strong tone for rest of show.

On occasion, the dancers interact with each other (where most of the particularly precise dancing takes place) and form groups. At other times, they flail around individually or stand perfectly still and calm. Their animalistic behaviour shows a disconnect from regular human actions, comparable to the writhing and screaming.

Amidst this, at certain points all performers suddenly fall. They drop to the floor which introduces a false calm which contrasts with the earlier frenzy. Then all the performers travel closer to the audience and begin thrashing about again, apart from the woman in red and a male dancer who roll slowly together across the length of the stage in a prolonged embrace of companionship or love. The cast then begins counting upwards in French, and advance into the audience engaging them in a decidedly unconventional way. This is sure to grab your attention.

Eventually they retreat to the stage, and fall still once more, with the music subsiding again. Now only their hands move, though gestures continue in endless variety as is central to the theme of the 10,000 Gestures of the title of the show. Finally the cast falls still once more, the stage is silent, and the music and lights fade to a close.

10,000 Gestures is a show which never loses your attention, as there is always visual or audible engagement. You will not find yourself bored. So much happens among the 25 performers – with each individual performer acts without any repetition of themselves, or each other simultaneously across the stage – that every member of the audience will have their own individual experience of the show. In addition the vague and elusive path the show takes, which allows for many possible interpretations, permits each viewer to form their own ideas. The skill and precision of each dancer is evident. The huge challenge the show’s choreographer, Boris Charmatz, has set himself, is brilliantly executed and the skill, effort and energy of the company is remarkable.

What I didn’t like was that the show was generally hard to understand – it had no dialogue and no clear progression of a story which made challenging for an observer to grasp the themes and messages of the show. Some members of the audience may have found it hard to engage with that, especially in a performance which lasted more than an hour and could profitably have been shortened. But this show, though by no means perfect, is definitely worth seeing. Its explosion of movement means it never loses one’s attention and provides moments which are especially striking.

Daniel Atherton


10000 Gestures

Manchester International Festival


A solo dancer, wearing a red bolero and ice skater skirt, enters the cavernous space that is the former Mayfield train depot in Manchester, at the start of Boris Charmatz’s epic dance piece premiering at the 2017 Manchester International Festival. Her movements are frenetic, episodic, elegant, wild, and entirely without any of the repeated patterns which we take for granted as integral to the business of dance.

In 10,000 Gestures, this celebrated French choreographer – whose work has recently been seen at Sadler’s Wells and the Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art – sets out with the ambition of never having any of his 25 dancers repeat a particular move or gesture. The result is powerful and enigmatic, haunting and puzzling.

The Girl in the Bolero sighs and grunts, like a terpsichorean tennis player or beast in labour, as she moves across the reflective floor of the vast hall.   Slowly this music of the human body is replaced, faintly at first and then ever louder, by Mozart’s Requiem. This is a journey from life to death.

The rest of the company arrive with ferocious speed from the back of the hall. The men wear balaclavas and boiler suits or are naked apart from underpants. The women are in leotards, bikinis, or the ruffles of Latin American dance outfits. All human life is here. Set against the studded cast-iron columns of the massive hall, illuminated with cold white strips of LED lights, the scene looks like the modern equivalent of some ancient bare Greek temple.

Against this gigantic canvas the dancers play out their individual stories with unnatural jerky obsessions and moments of superbly poised elegance. It is febrile and agonised. The audience feels like voyeurs at Bedlam or in a living version of Hieronymous Bosch’s vision of hell. There are wails and howls and screams. There is the grooming of apes, the rutting of stags, the loping of hyenas, the skeetering of birds, and the playground behaviour of children. There is combat, pursuit, embrace and onanism.

Dancers slip out of their individual isolation to interact as pairs, and then as groups in agonised tableaux of terror, and then return to their solipsism. Everywhere is the paradox of wildness and precision, brutality and delicacy.

But if it is overwhelming and puissant it lacks shape. It may not be repetitious but it grows samey. There is no narrative arc. The choreography is not sufficiently attentive to the dynamics of the music. But then the work changes gear.

Ground-based movements recall life crawling from the primeval slime, and then the company advances on the audience and invades the seating, counting aloud in French towards the 10,000 climax. Dancers move among and across the spectators before retreating to the hall. There they swirl around the enormous space like the fairies at the end of Shakespeare’s Dream and raise their hands to the heavens, in offering, before an exhausted stillness takes hold and darkness falls.

The audience leaves amazed and astounded, though not a little bewildered.

Paul Vallely





Some fine physical theatre but this play never really takes off

2017 July 10
by Paul Vallely



Royal Exchange, Manchester

3 stars

You get a hint of what you are in for before the play starts. The Royal Exchange theatre sits like a 20th century space module in the middle of Manchester’s magnificent cavernous Victorian cotton trading hall. Around it are tables where the audience can have a drink before the show. Before Fatherland actors wander round removing their granddad overcoats and hurling them to the ground or dropping them from the gallery staircase. One howls softly like a wolf spying the moon. You are in the world of self-conscious artifice.
On it goes. The three actors who take the stage are playing the three authors of the piece – playwright Simon Stevens of Curious Incident fame, musician Karl Hyde of Underworld and Scott Graham of the physical theatre group Frantic Assembly. For this new work, commissioned by the Manchester International Festival, they travelled to the home town of each of them – Stockport, Corby and Kidderminster – to compile a portrait of modern fatherhood. The play begins with them explaining their interview and editing process to one of their interviewees who accuses them of coming north from London to exploit ordinary people as a poncy metropolitan self-indulgence. This is to be art about Art.

The problem is that it’s not just self-referential but predictable. Questions about the first memory of your father, the job he did, how he died, the birth of your own first child, yield the odd gag and the occasional insight but they are few and far between in this celebration of masculine emotional constipation. The off-and-on overcoats represent the rejection and re-embrace of the bond between father and son but the doffing is repetitious and unfruitful.

The play eventually changes gear when things begin to go wrong for the three authors but then their confrontations of their own childhoods are conventional and difficult to milk for transcendent significance.

The highpoints of the evening are some fine pieces of physical theatre and Hyde’s dark low-register songs – which echo with the menacing rhythms of industrial machinery, soldier’s warsong and football chants – and which enable the men to venture into heightened emotional territory outside the range of everyday masculine conversation. But there is too much talk and not enough music.

It’s a shame as there are some very strong performances from Tachia Newall as the young father who never met his own Dad, Deka Walmsley as the repressed Geordie, Nick Holder as the man followed in his father’s footsteps up the fireman’s ladder, and Joseph Alessi as the brutal ‘Pscycho’. David Judge captures the stuttering frailty of a man recovering from mental ill-health .

The play soars for a moment as Neil McCaul swoops around the stage on a wire to express the elation an older man recalling his bursting pride at the birth of his son. But otherwise this is a creaking piece of machinery which lumbers self-importantly down the runway and then never takes off.

review written for The Independent

Something of an institution on the Manchester theatre scene

2017 May 24
by Paul Vallely

Suppose a nation were a person, and was subject to psychiatric analysis. Suppose a memory took flesh and appeared in conversation with us. Suppose, on a blind date, a couple were each accompanied by their alter ego, shouting advice and shrieking when it was not taken.

JB Shorts is now something of an institution on the Manchester theatre scene. Twice a year it presents six new 15-minute plays, each written by a different playwright whose day job is working in television. What the format offers is a chance for writers normally preoccupied with Emmerdale, Holby City, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Casualty to exercise a different set of creative muscles. They leave behind the naturalism of TV soap for a world of more imaginative dimensions.

The nation which is a person is the United States. In the playlet by father-and-daughter duo James and Aileen Quinn, America in the Trump era finally collapses psychologically. In Living the Dream Adam Jowett plays Uncle Sam with persuasive rhetorical verve while Sandra Cole is nicely sardonic as the black nurse charged with his care.

The memory incarnated onstage is presented to a man who is about to go on Desert Island Discs to promote his celebrated new book, which turns out to be a dredging of his soul over the suicide of his child. In Pretty Pimpin’ James Quinn, co-author of the first play, gives an assured and touching performance as the father, with Victoria Scowcroft (Coronation Street, Emmerdale etc) as his agent.

The blind date in Inside Voices is a clever piece of drama, albeit somewhat under-rehearsed, in which every character – boy, girl and waitress – is played by two actors. Writer Nick Ahad offers unexpected laughs and some perceptive insights.

This mini festival offers the chance for some fine performances. On a par with Adam Jowett and Sandra Cole is Amy Drake who is frenetically funny in Ian Kerhsaw’s Keep Breathing as the garrulous fitness instructor whose life is quietly falling apart beneath her non-stop patter.

And, the night I attended, there was a very funny performance from James Quinn, standing in for an ill colleague, in the concluding piece by Dave Simpson and Diane Whitley, Pot Plant, in which the home of an elderly couple is busted by the Greater Manchester Drugs Squad when it turns out they have been not just growing marijuana to ease his Parkinson’s and her arthritis, but also supplying the drug to half the elderly population of the city to counter a variety of aged ailments. A hoot.

JB Shorts goes from strength to strength.


from The Independent

photo:  James Quinn in Pretty Pimpin’

photo by Sean Mason

The political interview – point-scoring or a pursuit of the truth?

2017 May 19
by Paul Vallely

A headline from the Sun was read out on the BBC last week. CRASH, it said, over a report that Jeremy Corbyn’s car had run over the foot of a BBC cameraman. BANG depicted Corbyn-supporter Len McCluskey, falling down stairs. And WALLIES was its verdict on what it called Labour’s “manifesto launch shambles”. The Labour MP Barry Gardiner, interviewed on the Today programme immediately afterwards, complained that the BBC should exercise better judgement and not read out headlines which trivialise the election.

The BBC has a statutory duty to be impartial especially during election campaigns. There is more to impartiality than balancing air time. Yet when the vast majority of the press is pro-Tory a public broadcaster needs to exercise some sense of proportion. But Mr Gardiner’s complaint went further; he accused his interviewer, Nick Robinson, of wanting not only to ask the questions but also answer them. The MP insisted on shifting the ground from Jeremy Corbyn’s track record as a rebel MP onto “the really important stuff” about the need for conflict prevention, resolution and diplomacy.

Mr Gardiner studied moral philosophy at St Andrews, Cambridge and Harvard, under John Rawls. His training is evident in his approach to the media. As well as questioning Nick Robinson’s interview technique, he recently upbraided Sky’s political editor, Adam Boulton, for failing to hold his previous interviewee properly to account. And on Newsnight he took Emily Maitlis to task for rigidly adhering to an interview formula about “the size of the state” designed to trick him into saying something he did not want to say.

The philosophical underpinning of the public interview normally goes unquestioned. Too many journalists today begin by silently asking of the politician before, to quote Jeremy Paxman, “why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Many see the political interview as a battle they must win. One radio journalist recently informed the public that Jeremy Corbyn was “probably against the military intervention in Sierra Leone too”. Probably! Point-scoring has become more important than truth telling it seems.

Many interviewers now place themselves centre-stage. Like members of a sixth-form debating society, they seem more interested in winning the argument than illuminating the subject and leaving it to the listener to decide. They should be asking: “What does the audience want to learn from this interview?” Instead their starting point is: “How can I trip this politician up?”

Another BBC journalist, Evan Davies, has put his finger on the impasse at which journalists and politicians have arrived: “I think the worst of you. You play it as defensively as you can. Your strategy of being defensive is justified by me being aggressive… We’re now locked into the low road. Your strategy justifies mine. My strategy justifies yours.”

There are BBC guidelines on how to conduct an interview. They include “be sceptical not cynical” and “avoid grandstanding or showing-off.” As the election heats up it might be a good idea for journalists to go back and read them. By the way, the man who drove the car over the foot of the BBC cameraman was not Mr Corbyn but a police officer from the diplomatic protection unit.

Why I voted Labour yesterday but may not next month

2017 May 5
by Paul Vallely

I have never been a member of a political party. As a working journalist it never felt appropriate. Having said that, I was always fairly clear how I was going to vote. Until this general election.

My faith has been a key factor here. Over the years I have developed an increased sense of the importance of entrepreneurship in the creation of wealth – and the creation of jobs. But the economic self-interest which underlies that has always seemed to me to be a human characteristic which does not need encouragement. By contrast, the need for social justice and the fair treatment of all, requires institutions to counter our intuitive selfishness.

So I lean towards a kind of Christian socialism, though one which does not stifle economic creativity. Catholic Social Teaching offers useful tools to achieve this: on the foundation of human dignity it erects the twin pillars of solidarity and subsidiarity to support the overarching pediment of the common good.

But let’s not get too theoretical, for voting is also tribal. Whenever I enter a polling booth I feel the shade of my grandfather at my shoulder. He was a steelworker who pioneered the trade unions’ penny-a-week health insurance scheme which was the forerunner of the NHS.

I’m not sure however what Grandad would have made of Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps, like me, he would have had reservations about his coherence and competence as a potential prime minister. The Labour leader is possessed of an attractive personal integrity but as a lifelong rebel he has about him the ethos of student politics rather than grown-up realpolitik.

Before I voted yesterday for the new Mayor of Greater Manchester I tussled with whether a vote for Labour’s Andy Burnham would be a vicarious endorsement of Mr Corbyn.

Mr Burnham has lacked consistency, both in his campaign for the Labour leadership and in his subsequent vacillations in attitude to Mr Corbyn. However his fight for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough football disaster showed he has the ability to learn from his mistakes.

But in the end I decided local issues were paramount. Under the devolution known as Devo-Manc provision for the NHS and social services are being integrated under local government care for the first time in the UK. A health economist who worked for Mr Burnham when he was health minister tells me his record shows he is as well-equipped as anyone to undertake this innovative integration. So I cast my vote for Mr Burnham, risking that it might be misinterpreted as a vote for Mr Corbyn.

But I am not so sure that I will be able to do the same thing at the general election. Labour’s response to the Prime Minister’s seeming determination to pursue a hard Brexit is too ambivalent. The Liberal Democrats are the only party committed to pressing for a second poll to enable the British people to pass judgement on the quality of the deal which Mrs May eventually negotiates. I have to admit that this time I am considering upsetting the ghost of my grandfather.

from the Church Times

Easter on Iona – tradition or innovation?

2017 April 27
by Paul Vallely

John Bell of the Iona Community always prided himself on talking of God “in the language of the living room”. The great hymn-writer and preacher was not on Iona in person this Easter but the influence of the notion of telling the old story in new language is deeply-rooted on an island which as long ago as the 6th century was a centre of innovation.

Not that it is restricted to the Iona Community. We arrived on the remote Hebridean island for Holy Week late on Wednesday and awoke on Maundy Thursday to a penetrating Thought for the Day from Lucy Winkett, a cleric blessed with the gift of fresh eyes. More than that she has the application to use them to think through the Gospel in language which connects with non-Christians in our secularised society.

The phrase “on the night before he died, Jesus…” trips easily from Christian tongues as a short preamble to the Eucharist. But think, Lucy Winkett suggested: all of us must live through a night before we die. For those of us who are aware of the imminence of death it will be a time of acutely heightened experience. It will crystalize in our consciousness a realisation of what is most important in our life.

What Jesus chose to do the night before he died was to spend time with his friends. There was food and wine and music and heady discussion. Then as Jesus realised he could not sufficiently communicate his final message through words, he turned to action, washing feet and breaking bread. We have turned it into theology, but Jesus was instituting symbols of shocking potency.

On Good Friday morning residents with the Iona Community presented Stations of the Cross which began in Martyrs’ Bay and progressed through the ruins of the 13th century nunnery, via the parish church, up the hill to the rebuilt Abbey. But throughout that journey the people at its centre were individuals who lived lives as complex and messy as our own today.

Particularly vibrant was a dramatic monologue from Barabbas, unreformed, unrepentant and unapologetic, contemptuously misunderstanding what Christ had done for him and for many. Then came a piece of vivid reportage

from the centurion at the Crucifixion who was imagined to be the same Roman officer whose servant Jesus had healed two years before. These were not sideline cyphers in a traditional morality play. They were flesh-and-blood individuals with venalities and vulnerabilities we all can share.

At the Easter Day liturgy the presiding minister, Rosie Magee, continued this powerful demotic. Her invitation to the altar table was conversational but charged with a contemporary poetry. So too was her build-up to the words with which Jesus instituted our Eucharist. She was open, inclusive and utterly comprehensible to anyone who might have arrived a tourist and been drawn into something deeper.

Holy Week on Iona was an admonition against theological jargon. We in the Church all too often speak only to ourselves, it gently chided. There are other ways, Iona reminded us. The challenge is to take them out to the wider world.

* * *

An attentive reader contacted me after my description last week of the island of Iona as a place of innovation rather than tradition. Wasn’t the great inheritance of Celtic Christianity fundamental to what makes Iona special to people of faith today?

There is a paradox about Iona. Sitting out there at the extremity of the British Isles, it’s a place that people today visit to seek spiritual peace and quiet. But what first made it special was its position in the sixth century as an engine of sacred innovation.

It was Iona’s early monks who came up with the idea of marking a grave with a stone bearing a cross. Then the development of the cross reached new levels of creativity with the massive 4m tall high crosses which spread from Iona to the rest of Britain with their elaborate double-sided carvings of great Bible scenes and elaborate patterns symbolising eternity. Even now we do not fully understand the significance of the placement of the crosses in a liturgical landscape in which the sun falls on them differently as the hours and the seasons progress.

In the scriptorium, which made Iona’s library one of the powerhouses of Dark Age learning, new dyes and inks were discovered to produce the magnificent version of the gospel known as the Book of Kells. (Kells was only the place to which it was taken for protection from the Vikings.) The Abbey’s museum also contains pieces of the first glass ever made in Scotland. One of the windowpanes are so old that Columba’s 7th century biographer Adomnán may once have peered through it.

Other people’s innovations become our traditions, I thought, as we picked out an unfamiliar path from the Abbey to the hermit’s cell on the west of the island. It was more than a decade since I had been on an Iona community pilgrimage and the route had been changed to avoid erosion to the island peak. As we set off there was a path of sorts. Such, I pondered, is what tradition is; a path worn by others, which we follow.

But paths can lead you into bogs. On my return home last week I went to a lecture about Eusebius’s odd rewriting of the gospel story. This was not an error, as many have assumed, but a deliberate attempt to make Christ more attractive to elite educated 4th century Romans according to the lecturer, Dr James Corke-Webster. He was dismissive of earlier academics who assumed that the writers of antiquity were somehow not quite as bright as we are.

One of Melvyn Bragg’s guests on In Our Time programme, about the 13th-century English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon, made a similar point, saying: the past is not just a trajectory to the present. The death of a friend this week reminded me that every generation is equidistant from eternity. That’s what the communion of saints is about. It is how those who have died are still with us. And yet they sometimes teach us that, on occasions, we have to find new ways of getting to the old destinations.


these two pieces appeared in The Church Times

In defence of George Osborne – with one major caveat

2017 March 25
by Paul Vallely

I can’t say that I share in the high-octane political indignation at the former Conservative Chancellor, George Osborne, being appointed editor of the Evening Standard in London. Today he is due to meet his constituents in Cheshire to explain how he intends to represent them while editing a newspaper based 200 miles away.

Some of them may also raise his new job as a consultant to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, for which he is trousering a cool £650,000 a year for just four days work per month. Critics add up the money he will earn from all this. But clearly it is not about money for Mr Osborne, who has a sizeable shareholding in his family wallpaper empire.

Consider the objections. Career politicians complain that an MP should only have one job – representing his constituents. There’s a respectable argument for this. But there is a clear counterargument that outside interests give politicians a better understanding of the world in which the rest of us live. Leftists protest at the idea of a newspaper being controlled by a Conservative politician. Newspaper editors clearly resent the idea of a parliamentary interloper into their cosy closed shop.

Mr Osborne’s Tatton constituents seem divided on their MP’s extra new job. But few seriously think the issue is one of time. Mr Osborne was seen as a good active constituency MP even while he was Chancellor. There’s no reason to suppose editing a newspaper will take up more time than running the country. Not all editors are manic control freaks rewriting every headline. Mr Osborne will undoubtedly be of a more strategic breed.

And why should it be any more objectionable for a newspaper to be controlled by a Tory politician than by a Tory proprietor who subscribes to a right-wing ideological worldview, and appoints editors in his own likeness. Indeed Mr Osborne’s political track record could make it easier for the public to evaluate the politics of his Standard than it is to assess the covert agenda of a proprietor. Objections to the biased nature of Britain’s national press must go far deeper than this.

In any case Mr Osborne’s politics are undoubtedly more centrist than most of the populist Tory press – which is why the Standard’s Russian owner Evgeny Lebedev has proclaimed that his new editor “will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour party”. Certainly the Evening Standard, under him, can be expected to offer a more informed critique of the Brexit negotiating position adopted by Theresa May’s government over the next two years.

There is only one area where a real conflict of interest should cause anxiety. It is hard to see how the Standard’s business pages can with integrity cover the wide range of financial institutions in which BlackRock has interests. A politician can be a newspaper editor. There are plenty of precedents for that. But a newspaper editor cannot be an adviser to an asset manager. Mr Osborne should resign from BlackRock. But his Evening Standard should enhance British democracy rather than detract from it.


from the Church Times



Donald Trump’s lies are not random and impulsive. They have a pattern and a purpose.

2017 February 24
by Paul Vallely

“Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” Donald Trump proclaimed before an adoring rally this week. Trouble was that nothing much happened in Sweden the night before, certainly not the terrorist incident the President seemed to be hinting at. The responses were dismissive. Twitter was filled with suggestions about disasters involving Ikea’s self-assembly furniture. The former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt asked of Mr Trump: “what has be been smoking?”

It turned out that Mr Trump had been watching the right-wing channel Fox News a few days earlier and seen an interview with an anti-immigration campaigner who claimed that refugees were causing a crime-wave in Sweden but that it was being covered up by Swedish police. There was zero evidence for this. But it fitted with Mr Trumps narrative of “the very, very dishonest press [that] doesn’t even want to report” on terrorist attacks.

This is but one example of the dangerous blurring of fact and fiction characteristic of the new US President who has told demonstrable whoppers on everything from the size of the crowds at his inauguration to the current US murder rate which he says is the highest it’s been in 47 years” when FBI statistics show it is almost at its lowest point. There are so many Trump untruths that one White House correspondent is keeping a running list. There were 80 after just 4 weeks in office, but that was before the Swedish fantasy. He has even claimed the sun was shining at a time when it was raining.

Some of this is merely silly, a reflection of Mr Trump’s thin-skinned vanity which is unable to brook contradiction. Often leaves his listeners dumbfounded by the ridiculousness of his brazen lies. But there is a shameless quality to them which is unnerving. When one reporter pointed out the factual inaccuracy of one claim the President replied: “Well, I don’t know. I was given that information… I’ve seen that information around.”

It was with a similar shifty side-step that Donald Trump first catapulted himself into politics repeating the claims of far-right conspiracy theorists that Barack Obama was ineligible to be US president because was not born in America. Confronted with evidence to the contrary Mr Trump persisted, just adding the preamble: “A lot of people say that…” Belief replaces fact. His press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that when he said of his boss: “he believes what he believes.” This is the politics of panto in which “Oh no it’s isn’t” is deemed a sufficient refutation.

Yet this is serious. The Trump lies are not random. They have a pattern. His fabrications fit his various narratives: he is right and the press are wrong; facts are fake news whereas his assertions are unquestionable; America is rotten, because of blacks, Mexicans, immigrants and liberals and the press is lying to cover it up. To justify his self-image as the national saviour Donald Trump needs to depict a country which is in need of saving. His lies are attempts to shape a new reality. The new US president is not stupid. He is sinister.

 from The Church Times


Salieri, Iago, Eichmann, Donald Trump – Hannah Arendt and the voice of self-scrutiny

2017 February 7
by Paul Vallely

The name Amadeus means “he who loves God”. But in Peter Shaffer’s play of that name it speaks more of “he who is loved by God”. The subject of the play, nominally, is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart though the real protagonist is his contemporary Antonio Salieri. In Shaffer’s imagination, the older journeyman composer is so consumed with jealously at the talent God has prodigally bestowed upon the younger man that he sets out to destroy him.

In the current National Theatre production Salieri is played by Lucian Msamati who last year became the first black actor ever to play Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The two portraits offer a study in contrasting malevolences. In both a fake bonhomie covers a steady duplicity. But Salieri has a vulnerable charm where Iago is driven only by a bitter nihilism. Yet what both share is a frightening self-knowledge which is unable to save them from their corrosive obsession.

Perhaps all great characters in drama, good or evil, share one characteristic. It is the ability to dialogue between their better and worse natures and do it in public before us.

Radio 4’s In Our Time this week was on the Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt – whose book The Origins of Totalitarianism is enjoying a surge in sales with the advent of Donald Trump. Arendt is best known for her phrase “the banality of evil” which was succinctly explained by one of the programme’s academics by contrasting Shakespeare’s Richard III with Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat at whose trial Arendt coined her famous expression.

Shakespeare’s Richard III may have been the embodiment of pure evil but he has a gleeful awareness of his own subtle, false, and treacherous nature – a consciousness which only deepens the terrifying quality of a character who can descant on his own deformity. Eichmann, by contrast, is a representative of the “non-thinking self” – a man who lacked the capability to have a real conversation with himself about his conduct.

Eichmann was a man with an inability to think deeply, said Robert Eaglestone, Professor of Contemporary Literature and Thought at Royal Holloway. He spoke in clichés, couldn’t follow a train of thought, lacked a sense of history, and couldn’t understand other people’s point of view. He was, in the fullest sense of the term, thoughtless. This was the sense in which he was banal. There was – for all the terrible scale of his crime – no satanic greatness about him. Rather he embodied evil as a privation, an absence of goodness.

Perhaps that is also the difference between evil in fiction and fact. It’s hard to imagined there is much in the way of inner dialogue in the mind of someone like President Trump. He seems so unaware of the boundary between truth and falsehood that when a court declared his travel ban unconstitutional he brazenly described the man who made the ruling as a “so-called judge”. There is more than a scruple of self-doubt lacking in Mr Trump. The voice of self-scrutiny seems absent too.


from The Church Times

How to handle Donald Trump: complicity, compromise and conviction

2017 January 31
by Paul Vallely

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an unfinished hero, according to Dr Vicki Barnett of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Many factions in the Church – from liberals to evangelicals and even to Trump-supporting conservatives – like to lay claim to the Lutheran theologian. They find in his stance against the Third Reich an endorsement of whatever issue they feel they need to take a stand upon. But theirs is “the Bonhoeffer of the T-shirt”. For the martyr has something more complex to teach us.

We should be cautious about analogy, Dr Barnett warned when quizzed about the parallels between the rise of Hitler and the growth of populist nationalism today. Others were less reluctant. The academic introducing her at the 2017 Bogdanow Lectures in Holocaust Studies this week acidly noted the irony of Donald Trump choosing Holocaust Memorial Day to announce his ban on Muslim refugees entering America to flee from war. It had echoes of the European Jews rejected by the US in 1939 and sent back to deaths in German concentration camps.

Certainly it was hard not to bring to mind the blistering pace of Mr Trump’s first week as Dr Barnett recalled that, when Hitler became German Chancellor, it took him just six weeks to transform democracy into dictatorship. Watching current events coalesce, she said, has “given me a greater understanding of the dynamics of all this”.  Even as she spoke President Trump was sacking the serving Attorney General, Sally Yates, for declaring his travel ban unconstitutional.

Bonhoeffer was a man on a moral and political journey. He gave the Nazi salute when he deemed it politic. He declined to give Church burial to a relative branded Jewish by Nazi race laws. He was initially more concerned to resist the nazification of the German church than in taking a public stance against the wider persecution of the Jews. But he did work worked privately to rescue individuals. Later he became active in the German Resistance. Eventually he was executed for plotting to kill Hitler.

A similar interplay of complicity, compromise and conviction is at work today. The British prime minister opted for the former in her dealings with the new US president. It brought initial success on her visit to the US but crumbled when she was tardy in her repudiation of Mr Trump’s approach to Muslim refugees – and she showed poor judgment with her premature offer of a state visit for Mr Trump, an accolade never accorded to Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton and for which George Bush and Barak Obama had to wait more than two years. Compromise is the realpolitik for which Mrs May must now strive.

Conviction, meanwhile, is in great evidence in anti-Trump streets protests here and across the world, much of which, the prime minister may tartly note, is at no personal cost to the protestors. Yet Mrs May must find a way to accommodate that without giving insult to a US president with a notoriously thin skin and a propensity for retaliation.

Perhaps she should read a little Bonhoeffer.

 from The Church Times