Triumph of hype over hope?

By Mahir Ali


LAST Saturday’s Live8 was, as it is incessantly being pointed out, the biggest event of its kind. And its organizers are touting it as an unprecedented success. As perhaps it was, at least in logistical terms: 10 concerts across nine countries, with luminaries of the western popular music tradition turning out in force to entertain crowds of up to a million.

But did the value of Live8, reportedly witnessed by a global television audience of hundreds of millions, go beyond entertainment? Bob Geldof and U2’s Bono, as well as many of their co-stars, would answer that question in the affirmative. It’s easier for the rest of us not too get too carried away.

The ostensible purpose of Live8 was somewhat different from that of the Geldof-organized Live Aid 20 years ago. Back in 1985, the idea was to raise money for the starving masses in sub-Saharan Africa. Geldof made sure that the funds thus collected did indeed find their way to Somalia and Ethiopia. This helped to save some lives, but inevitably could not provide the basis for long-term solutions to famine, drought or any of the other causes of abject poverty.

This time around the idea evidently was to raise consciousness, to build up public pressure ahead of today’s Group of Eight (G8) summit in Scotland with the aim of persuading the leaders of the world’s richest and most powerful countries to save Africa. If only it were that easy.

Popular pressure can sometimes work wonders in bourgeois democracies. It can also be completely ignored — as it was two short years ago, when millions turned out in London, Madrid and Rome, among scores of other countries, in a vain attempt to pre-empt aggression against Iraq. The anti-war protesters failed even though the governments in question knew that public anger may well be reflected at the ballot box (as it was in Britain two months ago).

Unfortunately, the question of African poverty doesn’t have the same resonance. Even among those who attended Saturday’s concerts from the best of motives, there are unlikely to be many who would change their vote on the sole basis of a political party’s policies towards Africa. The G8 leaders know this; and they are also aware that many of those who flocked to the Live8 concerts, particularly in Philadelphia, did not have the fate of Africa on their minds. The quarter of a million people who marched in Glasgow at the weekend were, no doubt, more socially and politically motivated, but if their rallying cries don’t fall on deaf ears, it’ll largely be because the leaders in question — especially George W. Bush and Tony Blair — are desperate to rehabilitate their popular standing. Which has diminished precisely because they refused to heed vox populi in 2003.

It remains to be seen whether the token gesture will go beyond the debt cancellation announced a few weeks ago. Blair has been mooting a doubling of the western minuscule aid commitment, and even Bush has lately spoken of an anti-malarial cash injection. The British prime minister has been making the right sort of noises about what is arguably the most important issue of all: the terms of trade that discriminate so disastrously against African farmers. A meaningful transformation in that sphere could potentially change the continent’s future. Which probably means it’s not going to happen.

Where the likes of Geldof and Bono err most seriously is in expecting anything more than gestures from those who preside over determinedly exploitative economies. The profit motive isn’t any more capable of conquering Africa’s woes than the disastrous structural adjustment policies imposed over the past few decades. The continent is rich in resources but woefully inadequate in terms of a manufacturing base. And the theft of its resources did not cease with the end of colonialism. The most egregious atrocity of recent times has been the supply of weapons in exchange for precious minerals — those that aren’t already controlled by western corporations.

Chances are that Africa would do much better were it to be left alone — not in the sense of being ostracized, but in terms of regaining control of its resources. The frequently derided corruption that does indeed riddle many African countries (although it isn’t by any means restricted to that continent) requires western cooperation to thrive. When the West insists upon “good governance” as a condition for aid or debt cancellation, the stress isn’t so much on democratic accountability as on privatization and various other elements of neo-liberal economics.

And perhaps the biggest problem with those who organize and attend events such as Live8 is their misplaced sense of accomplishment, the idea they take home once the last anodyne chorus has been sung that somehow their energy hasn’t been entirely wasted. Is it any surprise that the likes of Blair and Gordon Brown do not disapprove of public displays that go out of their way to avoid giving offence to the powers that be? They are happy to co-opt the half-baked good intentions of the Geldofs and Bonos, but are wary of protesters with a less compromising agenda. Hence the British government’s determination to keep anti-globalization and anti-war demonstrators out of the earshot of the summiteers at the Gleneagles hotel in Perthshire.

Such summits are perhaps the apex of gesture politics: any agreements (or compromises) are invariably settled well in advance of the get-together by negotiators, or “sherpas”. The leaders probably spend most of their time making small talk, and it is likely that Iraq will not figure even in those conversations, although it is clearly an issue that has been weighing on their minds not least that of the US president.

Bush’s speech to a military audience at Fort Bragg a week ago was remarkable in several ways, not least because of its similarity to an oration delivered a year earlier at the Army War College in Pennsylvania. One difference was that this time around the listeners didn’t applaud much. There was just one ovation, and the spin subsequently put out was that this was deliberate: the White House decided that too much enthusiasm would be at odds with the president’s solemn invocation of America’s war dead.

That may well be so, and predetermined restraint is no more commendable than organized fervour. On the other hand, if the silence was spontaneous, Bush is in bigger trouble than the less than complimentary opinion poll results suggest.

The speech was, of course, a reaction to pollsters’ findings that the war in Iraq is more unpopular than ever before: although support for an immediate pullout is still fairly low, a majority of Americans appear to believe that US military involvement was a mistake in the first place. And in trying to dispel that notion — which according to some sources is comparable to the “tipping point” in the national mood on Vietnam following the Tet offensive of 1968 — Bush opted for a tack rather different from his premature “major combat operations are over” pronouncement and the “bring it on” taunt to the Iraqi resistance.

Notably, he cited the attacks of September 11, 2001, no less than five times in an effort — hardly new — to reinforce the impression that the occupation of Iraq is nothing more than a part of the effort to keep terrorists at bay. The official US narrative on Iraq keeps changing, but the administration finds it hard to make it fit even the distorted facts. Bush’s thesis on Iraq — for which he cited Osama bin Laden as an authority — is contradicted, inter alia, by a leaked CIA report that says the war is creating a new breed of jihadists, potentially more dangerous than those who emerged from Afghanistan.

But it’s not just the CIA: senior members of the Bush administration seem to be singing from different hymn books. Vice-president Dick Cheney, for instance, after describing Guantanamo Bay as more or less a tropical resort, claimed that the Iraqi insurgency was in its death throes. Not long afterwards, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld uncharacteristically painted a more realistic picture by saying that it could go on for at least a decade.

General John Abizaid says more foreign fighters are coming into Iraq than was the case six months ago. There is mounting evidence, meanwhile, that supposed reconstruction efforts, paid for with Iraqi money, are yielding monumental profits for American corporations, notably Halliburton. A detailed investigative report published this week by The Observer in Britain says units of the puppet regime’s interior ministry are practising torture without restraint. The Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations has claimed that his 21-year-old cousin was killed in cold blood by US troops during a house search in an Iraqi village. And the newly appointed Egyptian ambassador to Baghdad has become the latest foreigner to be kidnapped.

Bush says “we are prevailing”, but offers no evidence. “Our enemies are brutal,” he says, “but they are no match for the United States of America.” A Freudian slip? “Some of the violence you see in Iraq is being carried out by ruthless killers who are converging on Iraq to fight the advance of peace freedom.” You don’t say! Do they happen to be wearing American uniforms? “And there is no limit to the innocent lives they are willing to take.” Hey, has someone taught this guy to tell the truth?

As retired US lieutenant-general William Odom noted last year, “When the president says he is staying the course, it reminds me of the man who has just jumped from the Empire State Building. Half way down he says, ‘I am still on course’. Well, I would not want to be on course with a man who will lie splattered in the street.”

Email: mahirali1@gmail.com

The worst US president ever?

By Huck Gutman


GEORGE W. Bush is quite likely the worst president in the 200-year history of the United States. This has enormous implications for the international community, since his country is not a small republic like the Maldives or Andorra, but a global behemoth.

His power as the most powerful man on earth derives not from a particular intelligence or set of talents, but by virtue of his position as the leader of the dominant military and economic nation on our planet.

Many of us in the United States do not like the way in which George W. Bush runs the American nation and attempts to run the world. Our numbers are growing: in each of the nine national polls taken in this month less than half the respondents are of the opinion that he is handling the presidency well. More significant still, since he retains a reputation for personal charm which buttresses his standing in the polls, the latest poll reported that only one-third of Americans think the American nation, under Bush, is headed in the right direction. Two polls earlier in the month found that well under 40 per cent of Americans approve of the direction in which he is leading the country.

Americans are very fond of lists, so let me do the American ‘thing.’ Here is a list of the top 10 reasons why President George W. Bush can be considered the most disastrous president in American history. This is actually a double list: the first five items concern foreign policy, while the second five address domestic policy.

Mr Bush began a war on false pretences. He lied to his people when he committed them to the war on Iraq, and on the basis of those lies he has undermined world security and committed his nation to the destruction of much of Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died — and over 1,700 Americans — for no reason greater than that being a war-time president would improve his political stature. (Well, it is possible that his personal oil interests, and those of his friends, factored in. Maybe also an idiosyncratic personal grudge — on the order of, ‘I’m going to show up my father and get that damn Saddam Hussein and show I’m tougher than both Saddam and my Dad’ — that raises his Oedipal complex to international dimensions.)

That he lied about Iraq’s ‘threat’ to the United States is no unsubstantiated allegation. The recently revealed “Downing Street Memo” is the report of Britain’s’ intelligence chief made to Prime Minister Blair about his trip to the United States eight months before the war in Iraq began, long before it was publicly considered.

The memo makes clear that deception and the fitting of facts to serve a military agenda was a high priority for the Bush administration. (‘C’ in the following is Sir Richard Dearlove, head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service — MI 6 — who had just returned from meetings in Washington.) “C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Let us be blunt. Basing a war on ‘fixed’ evidence is a high crime, a betrayal of the trust of the nation’s citizens. In the United States, it is grounds for impeaching the president and removing him from office. But since Mr Bush’s own Republican Party controls both houses of Congress, such impeachment is, though warranted, unlikely.

Mr Bush has undermined global security by legitimizing a doctrine of ‘preemptive war. “ What nation cannot use Mr Bush’s rationale — “to counter a sufficient threat to our national security...to forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively” — in its own interest to attack a neighbouring state”? The threshold which prevents nations from legitimately making war on other nations has been dramatically lowered by the Bush administration.

Even worse, as I have argued previously on this page, the American president’s “National Security Strategy” justifying preemptive war provided economic reasons as examples of a casus belli: a disrespect for private property, policies which do not “support business activity,” and a refusal to commit to “tax policies — particularly lower marginal tax rates — that improve incentives for work and investment.” If one parses that last statement, it says that if another nation that taxes the wealthy to provide services for the poor, the United States may consider it has a sufficient cause for preemptive war.

Mr Bush has waged a destructive war in and against Iraq. There is no question that Saddam Hussein was a dictator and that his regime was repressive. But by ignoring the international community and the United Nations, by starting a war to show he was tougher than his father, Mr Bush has visited destruction and death on the people and the economy of an independent nation.

Reliable reports put the civilian death count in Iraq at somewhere between 22,500 (actually reported and verifiable) to 98,000 (the number provided by the British medical journal Lancet nine months ago based on its sophisticated statistical sampling). Electric service is unreliable in 78 per cent of households in Iraq, a figure which increases to 92 per cent in Baghdad. Potable water is often non-existent. Male unemployment is over 30 per cent. Meanwhile, American companies are growing immensely profitable by supposedly providing services — repairing infrastructure, pumping oil — that benefit them far more than the citizens of Iraq.

Mr Bush embarked on a war with no plan to win the peace. He created a dramatic made-for-television scenario on the deck of an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003, when, dressed in a pilot’s jacket, arms outspread, he declared victory in Iraq. He insisted, “major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Since that date, 1,365 Americans have died in combat, almost 10 times the number who died before Bush declared “victory,” and between 15,000 and 35,000 have been wounded.

(It is telling, and chilling, that there seem to be no cumulative figures on the number of Iraqi civilians who have been wounded during the American occupation. Aren’t the deaths of fathers and aunts and children and co-workers worth tallying? We know that the US administration seeks to control the news: but how can the scope of this tragedy go unreported?)

Mr Bush seems to have no sense of history: it is as if the French occupation of Algeria, the American occupation of Vietnam, the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, taught him and Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld nothing at all. Perhaps they have been too busy looking at political poll numbers, and figuring out how to get new contracts for American corporations, to read any books about what happens when major powers decide to wage a war in and against developing nations.

Mr Bush is committed to unilateralism. There will be no American ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to curb climate change. Mr Bush rejected the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia, the International Criminal Court, bilateral negotiations with North Korea. He invaded Iraq with only the support of what he called the ‘coalition of the willing ,’ a code name for Great Britain and a number of American client states.

Tellingly for the future of humankind, he has unilaterally rejected the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians. The United States has held over 500 people of 35 different nationalities at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, “many” according to Amnesty International, “without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits.”

The American military subjected inmates at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison to humiliation amounting to torture. Amnesty International reports that the “total number of detainees held outside the USA by the US during the ‘war on terror’” is 70,000 — and it is unknown for how many of them their Geneva Conventions rights are secured.

To summarize: Instead of making the world a safer place, Mr. Bush has made war, wrought destruction, and undermined multilateral efforts to build and sustain a more livable world.

Commissions and omissions

By Hafizur Rahman


IS anyone keeping count of the special commissions and committees that sit down to investigate matters of national importance, complete their work and disperse (or die a natural death), leaving behind reports that are never made public — in the public interest? All of you will raise hands and say, “Hamoodur Rahman Commission for one.”

But will that be enough? I know we are not good at counting, and since the number of such bodies is likely to exceed our knowledge of simple arithmetic, we may never be able to find out the total number.

In the old, old days when Punjab was ruled by Mian Mumtaz Daultana, a member of the provincial assembly from Muzaffargarh, Malik Qadir Baksh, was asked to draft a comprehensive report for the government on corruption and anti-corruption. In those days the two were separate fields. Now you can’t tell the difference between them.

Malik Sahib worked very hard and compiled a report. This was lifted from his study by a staff correspondent of Dawn in Lahore and was duly published. The Official Secrets Act was pressed into service but nothing came of it. I have no other purpose in narrating this story than to excite (or incite) young and enterprising reporters into a similar action.

Because of this lack of journalistic initiative we have no knowledge of exactly what the Hamoodur Rahman Commission’s report says, except to believe the version published in India. None of our bright pressmen have had the guts to get hold of a copy of the report during the last 21 years. By the way, of all the hullabaloo on this, the cake goes to Maulana Fazlur Rahman for making the most bizarre comment. “The Indian version is false and has been tampered with to bring a bad name to the Pakistan army.” But this was many years ago. The Maulana has become shrewd now.

But where is the original report, the real McCoy as Americans say, or asli te waddi as Punjabis would put it? Some time after taking over control of the country, General Pervez Musharraf said that the report would at last see the light of day and that a committee had been constituted to go through it carefully before making it public. As we know, nothing happened.

However, how the report crossed the border also calls for another commission. Was it a RAW agent, an “anti-state” element, hand-to-mouth government official, the CIA, or an operative of the Hindu-Jewish axis that is always busy causing disruption in Pakistan from the topmost circles down to the municipal level? Naturally the findings of this commission too will not be made public for long — in the national interest.

But seriously, there is another very important report that has been long overdue now. That is of the commission on the Ojhri Camp disaster which took place in Rawalpindi in April 1988, in which munitions meant for the Afghan Mujahideen blew up and caused extensive damage. This commission was set up by the then prime minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo, against the express wish of President Ziaul Haq.

Naturally, the report must have pointed the finger of suspicion at some army officers. The GHQ’s reluctance to publish the report may be understood, but one can only wonder how the public interest changes overnight in Pakistan when the public remains unchanged. While it was in the public interest before May 29, 1988, (when Mr Junejo was dismissed) that the contents of the report be made known, it was no longer so after that date. We all know what happened to Mr Junejo but nobody knows the fate of the report. I can never forget the date because, two days later, I was dismissed as chief editor of The Pakistan Times, having been appointed only 25 days earlier by Mr Junejo. I think it was the shortest editorial stint ever.

Another report that is gathering dust somewhere is that of a women’s commission set up (believe it or not) by President Zia, with Begum Zari Sarfraz as chairperson. What could be so secret or earth-shaking about it that it was not made public? Later a new women’s commission was formed. Was its chairperson and members allowed to read the report, or was that considered too dangerous for the state?

As I have said, there is no knowing exactly how many reports of commissions and committees have yet to see the light of day. The authorities take full advantage of the fact that public memory is short. Unfortunately now the memory of newspapers too is failing. Otherwise they used to keep issues alive. Gone are the days when the publication of an adverse news item used to shake the entire administration. Now people would not turn a hair if a newspaper were to report, say, that the President’s House had been sold by an officer of the Capital Development Authority to an Italian drug mafia, and, pocketing the proceeds, the officer had fled to Sicily.

It goes to the credit of the press that it is exposing new scams every now and then but they hardly cause a ripple on the placid surface of the murky administrative lake. We have all become thick-skinned. It is not that government leaders and bureaucrats were more responsible previously. What has gone is the fear of accountability. Everyone knows that one can nowadays get away with anything; the biggest lie, the biggest fraud, the biggest scandal. This is not rhetoric on my part. It is the plain truth. Why couldn’t any of the four representative and democratically elected governments since 1988 publish the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report in its entirety and also the Ojhri blast report, especially Mian Nawaz Sharif who claimed the biggest mandate in Pakistan’s history. Maybe because the top generals did not form part of the heavy mandate. Although he did take on the army, but instead of dismissing the COAS summarily and doing other foolish things he could have established his fearlessness by making the two reports public. What could General Musharraf have done?

So we can give up all hopes of ever reading the really important parts of the reports. Unless, as I have suggested, reporters with a flair for adventure fish them out and newspapers pick up courage to publish them.

Rethinking Iran

IRANIANS once again have voted for change in their authoritarian Islamic regime. Their choice for president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, differs dramatically from the liberalizing reformer voters backed in two previous elections.

But Mr Ahmadinejad, a religious hard-liner, is no more likely to satisfy restless Iranians than his failed predecessor. He should instead prompt the West to rethink its own strategy for promoting freedom inside Iran, and for containing Iran’s nuclear programme and support for terrorism.

Mr Ahmadinejad, 49, a former mayor of Tehran, offered a message of economic populism and, implicitly, a rebuke to the Iranian political establishment. That apparently won him a landslide victory among those Iranians who chose to vote — much of the democratic opposition supported a boycott — over 70-year-old former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a symbol of the old order.

But while he has promised a moderate government, the new president is more likely to tighten than loosen the political and personal freedoms of Iranians. He is also conspicuously less interested than was Mr Rafsanjani in pursuing better relations with Western investors and governments, including the United States. He is outspoken in his support for Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Bush administration and other western governments will want to watch carefully for such a negative shift in Iranian foreign policy in the coming months. But Mr Ahmadinejad’s election also means that real power in Iran will lie more than ever in the hands of its Shia clergy and the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr Khamenei could still decide to pursue a deal with European governments that would curtail the Iranian nuclear programme: That, anyway, is the hope those governments will cling to. The Bush administration has wisely backed European diplomacy in recent months while reserving the right to insist that Iran be referred to the UN Security Council for violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The administration reportedly is working on new ways to stop Iranian proliferation from the outside, such as by penalizing companies that provide key supplies.

—The Washington Post

Elitist approach to education

By Zubeida Mustafa


THE chapter on education in the Pakistan Economic Survey 2004-05, released in June, is ‘question-provoking’, if one is allowed to use the term. It says the right things about the importance of education for change in society and the progress of the masses.

The goals of the government spelt out are also very inspiring, that is if you believe them. It says that the “Government of Pakistan has adopted this sector (education) as one of the pillars for poverty reduction and benefit of masses. Government is fully committed to provide best Educational Facilities to its people in the minimum possible time.” (Reproduced without editing).

How have the policymakers decided to go about their task of spreading education in the country with the idea of achieving EFA (education for all)? Regrettably, all the loud talk notwithstanding, one finds little in the strategy adopted to inspire confidence in the government’s education policy. In analysing the reasons for our failure in the education sector, the Survey observes, “One important factor is that Pakistan’s educational system has been highly fragmented and segmented. It has, therefore, created some intractable problems in the optimal utilization of human resources under the given labour market condition.”

This analysis is to a certain extent correct though equally important is the poor quality of education being imparted to most students. The approach adopted will only serve to fragment the system even further and will hardly improve the standard of education. Moreover, enrolment and literacy are not growing as fast as one would have liked them to.

According to the government’s statistics, literacy went up from 51 per cent in 2001-02 to 53 per cent in 2003-04. This is hardly an increase of one per cent in the literacy rate per annum whereas the primary school enrolment grew at about 0.8 per cent in the last year. With the population growth rate said to be 2.7 per cent, it is obvious that the country is not keeping pace with the number of new children being added, not to speak of the existing backlog of illiteracy.

In other words, even though the literacy rate is going up, the absolute number of illiterates in the country is also growing. This phenomenon cannot be halted until the government steps up the expansion rate of educational institutions, especially at the primary level. Things are

not too bright on this front either as the government is gradually slowing down its pace of expansion in the primary education sector and gradually shifting the load to the private sector.

This has euphemistically been termed as the public-private partnership. With the private sector actively being encouraged to enter this field, the number of private schools, colleges and universities has suddenly shot up. So has enrolment. Nearly 42 per cent of primary school children now go to private schools.

This is not a very happy situation. First of all, the private schools which do provide good education are either too elitist and charge an exorbitant fee which few can afford, or are not easily accessible as they are community/trust/denominational schools and are few in numbers. The others which have mushroomed are not necessarily providing education of a high standard.

Since the government is so beholden to them for sharing its responsibility, it is not in a position to exercise any regulatory authority over these institutions. This would explain why enrolment is not going up fast enough and why standards are going down. The authorities should not underestimate the intelligence of the poor. When their child cannot be provided education that improves his prospects in life, they prefer to pull him out of school.

The concept of public-private partnership has been misunderstood and is confined to the NCHD (National Commission for Human Development). This commission that was set up in 2002 has as its mission the promotion of development in the field of education, health and micro finance. Although it has mobilized $5.5 million from private donors, the bulk of its funds ($34 million) come from government resources.

Yet the NCHD has been given a free hand to administer the schools while individual adopters (in Karachi under the Sindh Education Foundation’s adopt a school programme) have been expressing their frustration at the non-cooperation of and interference from the education authorities. These factors do not permit them to improve the performance of their school for which they have been paying.

It is strange that the government has chosen to neglect the primary education sector. With dynamic leadership provided by its head, Dr Attaur Rahman, the Higher Education Commission has become the focal point of the education sector. It is good if college and university education receives a boost. It has after all also been neglected for years. But without the base (primary education) being strengthened, it seems unrealistic to expect the universities to produce graduates of a high class.

The primary sector continues to be stagnant as the basic malaise affecting it has not been addressed. The lack of efficient monitoring and inspection has given rise to problems such as ghost schools, absenteeism among teachers and corruption. The poor training of teachers has resulted in a dismal quality of education. Whether this will ever be attended to, time alone will tell.

But the basic fact is that the political will to educate the nation is missing. As one of our letter writers pointed out the other day that the president or the prime minister never attend the convocation of a public sector university but appear quite willing to go to the graduation ceremonies of one of the elitist private institutions. This is creating further fragmentation which the Economic Survey warns against.

We surely cannot have education for the rich and education for the poor. This will perpetuate the class divide which has already become so pronounced in Pakistan. If education is bifurcated too, unemployment, underemployment and low-paid jobs will be the lot of the poor.

Newspaper taxes

THE celebrations of the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar have inevitably eclipsed the commemoration last week of another event which, in its own way, did almost as much as Lord Nelson’s great naval victory to shape the kind of country we have now become.

It is exactly 150 years since the last tax on newspapers was abolished in 1855. This was an event for which campaigners had agitated over more than 30 years, and it not only ushered in the era of the affordable daily newspaper but paved the way for the British press as we still know it today. The immediate result of the abolition of the penny duty on newspapers was the launch of the Daily Telegraph, whose 150th birthday has also been celebrated last week and which, later in 1855, became the first national daily penny paper.

In our own case, the repeal of the penny duty allowed the Manchester Guardian to move from appearing only twice weekly to become the daily paper.

In the light of experience, there may be some who are tempted to think that the 1855 law was a mixed blessing for later generations of Britons. But that would be a very churlish view to take, not least because of the sacrifices and effort made by so many early 19th-century reformers to overthrow a system of newspaper taxes that deliberately denied the news to the poor and placed the press directly at the mercy of often hostile governments.

This is a week, therefore, to remember not just the great naval hero and his comrades, but also some of those who fought here at home for freedom of the press: people like Richard Carlile, who sold his Republican newspaper “unstamped” and went to prison for it, like Henry Hetherington, whose Poor Man’s Guardian probably did more than any other publication to challenge the stamp duty, and like Thomas Milner Gibson MP, whose Association for the Repeal of the Taxes on Knowledge spearheaded the campaign whose success we mark this week.

Lord Nelson certainly saved the country from invasion, but Hetherington and his colleagues left us the freedoms that make it a country to be proud of.

—The Guardian, London

Updated Jul 06, 2005 12:00am

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