Is that blood on the canvas?

Is that blood on the canvas?

John Sweeney, The Observer, 14 December 1997

THE flopping down of Richard Branson’s wayward balloon in what Lord Salisbury once called ‘the enormous sandpit’ of the Gallic cockerel is an odd metaphor for the collapse of compassion. But the Virgin flop in the Sahara speaks to a great hole in the heart of the obsessed Nineties, where caring isn’t cool.

We don’t seem to care very much about human suffering if it happens to people who have not featured in Hello!.

Had Branson’s balloon landed on one of the Algerian tyranny’s many massacres, one could imagine the headlines back home: ‘Hacked limbs in blow to tycoon’s round-the-world bid.’ Fleet Street would have analysed the risks to the delicate helium envelope if it became caked in blood. A black joke too far?

Not black enough. Last week virtually every newspaper had immense coverage of Branson’s reverse. The story of what is really going on in Algeria got shorter shrift. Take the Times on Thursday. Well down the list of the foreign news briefs, beneath ‘Bobbitt’s ex-wife charged’ and ‘Spielberg film cleared’ was a seven-line agency report, headed: ‘ Algeria blamed for killings.’ The report cited Muhammed Larmi Zitout, a former Algerian diplomat, saying: ‘It’s evident that the majority of these massacres are the work of the Algerian secret service.’

It’s not a problem of dearth of evidence. Read any report by Amnesty International. And you don’t have to go to Algeria to find out what’s happening. Try Kentish Town. Visit the office of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Last week I met a gentle imam, a Muslim priest, who was tortured so horribly in an Algerian police station for nothing more than seeking the right to vote that I could not sleep that night and cannot bring myself to describe what happened to him.

Here’s another example. While all the world made a hullabaloo about the plight of yachtsman Tony Bullimore, only this newspaper thought it fit to investigate last Christmas’s sinking of the SS Yiohan, the ‘ship of death’ which killed 300 immigrants.

A cynic might say that is nothing new and that compassion fatigue happens when foreigners suffer. But something has happened this year that makes one’s despair at this wretched selfishness all the more acute.

Let’s go back, for a moment, to the balloon and Branson – a New Labour icon if ever there was one, given that he’s 1, a tabloid face, 2, a filthy rich businessman, and 3, allows control of his key companies to rest offshore.

Last Thursday the Times reported that the hero of the operation to retrieve the balloon was the British charge d’affaires in Algiers, Jeremy Macadie. Hurrah! Here we have a country in which 80,000 have been killed, where horrific massacres take place just round the corner from the barracks of the all-powerful forces of the police state, and Our Man On The Spot goes balloon-hunting.

This would have been entirely appropriate behaviour for a British diplomat under a Tory Foreign Secretary, but under bright, shiny New Labour we expected something a little more moral. We expected an ‘ethical’ diplomacy based on human rights, not on salvaging Virgin’s reputation for corporate PR.

When not finding balloons, Mr Macadie may spend all his working time complaining about human rights abuses in Algeria . If so, we have not heard much about it.

None of this was quite so troubling under Thatcher and Major we expected the Tories not to care. But what now revolts about the spectacle of hundreds of well-paid MPs voting to take money away from single parents is that we did not expect it from the Labour Party.

This year my marriage fell apart and I became a single parent. In the middle of personal agony, one thing has come home to me: it’s extremely hard to look after the children you adore if you are on your own. I don’t look after mine all the time, but when I do it is heart-breakingly difficult to keep them happy and occupied and loved when there’s no one to share the work. The pressure is incredible, and I am a very well-paid professional with a repertoire of weird stories about taxi drivers in Ougadougou to keep most kids amused for an hour or two. What it must be like for a single mum on the breadline I cannot imagine. And yet it is these people who are suffering because the Government doesn’t care.

Christmas stomps towards us, and with it the revolting orgy of consumerism. For 18 years I was one of those who thought that it would be all right when Labour got in, that when the Left was in power ‘caring for the underdog’ would be written into the Government’s rule book.