We now trust no one with our data – not even our doctors | Jonathan Freedland

The Edward Snowden revelations could prove bad for our health, thwarting a vital NHS scheme to gather clinical information

If you thought someone snooping around your emails and listening to your phone calls was bad, imagine them looking at your medical records. The private realm may be ever-shrinking – in an age when we reveal so much of ourselves online and when we know the eavesdroppers of the NSA and GCHQ are never far away – but if there's one thing we'd want to keep behind high walls, it's surely the intimate histories of our mental and physical health.

So there can be little surprise that privacy campaigners are recoiling at the expansion of NHS England's data collection, which from this spring will take in information from the place where most people experience the NHS: their GP's surgery. Until now, the NHS in England kept the stats from hospital visits but not from those day-to-day encounters with your local doctor. As 26.5m leaflets pop through letterboxes, explaining the new "care.data" project, groups such as medConfidential.org are urging patients to opt out in the name of basic privacy. One survey found that up to 40% of GPs plan to keep their own personal records out of the scheme. My first, unreflective instinct would be to stay out too – and others will surely feel the same way. Indeed, the appeal of that stance says much about the times we live in, both online and in the physical world.

For one thing, less than a year after Edward Snowden's revelations of mass surveillance, the notion that our medical records will remain closely guarded, viewed only by those doctors and scientific researchers who need to see them, arouses instant scepticism. Sure, we think. They said the same about our emails. After Snowden, many will assume that if the authorities want to know whether we are HIV-positive or once suffered from depression, they'll be able to find out with just one click. As medConfidential's Phil Booth told the FT: "Everyone agrees medical research is a good thing but, after the NSA scandal, people are getting wise to the dangers of these massive data sets." [paywalled link]

It doesn't even have to be that sinister. It wasn't that long ago that government ministers were apologising from the floor of the House of Commons after Revenue & Customs mislaid two discs containing the names, dates of birth, national insurance numbers and, where relevant, bank details of 25 million people. What, one wonders now, is to stop the geniuses who brought us that disaster messing up again, except this time losing not our tax details but the stories of our lives and bodies?

Campaigners worry too about who might want to take a look at all that info. Won't the big drug companies be desperate to pore over that information, the better to profit from our frailties? And if private health and life insurance companies get access to that data, won't they start charging higher premiums if they know what once took us to see the doctor?

Given all those worries, you can see why some want to opt out. And yet that first, gut instinct might be wrong. It's not just that the vast bulk of the information will be rendered anonymous, with individuals blurred out in all but the most controlled circumstances, or that there are strict rules in place over access to this information. Nor even that there is an explicit declaration that this data will not be shared with insurance or marketing companies – so no prospect of a Strepsils ad popping up on your screen just after you've seen your GP over a sore throat.

Rather, it's the great gain that this information will provide. Small, clinical studies only tell you so much. Sometimes it's mass data you need. It was mass information that disproved the link between MMR and autism, or that spotted the connection between Thalidomide and birth defects, or between smoking and cancer. Ethically you can't conduct trials on pregnant women or children, so you're reliant on knowing what's happening in the population. If you can know that swiftly and at scale, you can act faster and more effectively. As the leaflet popping through the door puts it: "Better information means better care."

The pragmatic truth is that this logic extends even to the private drug companies. Like it or not, it's through pharmaceutical companies that new medicines are developed: they're the ones who fund the trials, turning research into medication. As Nicola Perrin of the Wellcome Trust, which strongly backs care.data, put it to me: "If we want access to the best possible drugs, the drug companies need access to the best possible information."

There is a principle at stake here too. In a subtle piece for the Socialist Health Association, Prof Dave Byrne recalls the traditional method of teaching medical students, in which a senior doctor on a ward-round would urge them to look at and learn from real-life individuals and their treatment: care.data is just a hi-tech version of that process, says Byrne, gathering together doctors' experience of treating patients. Viewed this way, our individual experience of treatment – suitably anonymised – is not our private property, even if it should remain private. Those who treated us have the right to use that experience to benefit others, to help the collective good.

But anonymity is the key. None of these arguments in favour of care.data works unless we can be sure those rules on access hold firm and that the identity of individual patients remains concealed – and not easily hacked as some currently fear. And yet online anonymity remains vexed. All too often it seems we don't have it when we should, whether through data loss or NSA-style state intrusion. At the same time, we have too much anonymity when we shouldn't: witness the social media trolls and abusers, or phoney, astroturf campaigners, able to stay hidden when they would surely shrivel if exposed to the daylight and forced to reveal their true identities.

The larger obstacle confronting this new scheme goes beyond the virtual realm. It is a change that is infecting almost every aspect of our shared lives: loss of trust. So the government can issue guarantees of privacy protection and our first thought is of missing discs, GCHQ eavesdroppers or perhaps hacked phones. Too many institutions have been exposed as having betrayed their unspoken promises, whether it's MPs, the security services, the police, the banks or the BBC.

For many years the NHS stood alone, immune to this trend, doctors topping every index of trust. But thanks to Mid-Staffs and scandals like it, the NHS too has been found wanting. Which is why a good idea like a project to share our broad, unnamed data can face such resistance. We take nothing on trust these days – not even the word of a doctor.

Twitter: @Freedland

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Peter Hain’s one-state solution is a sobering vision

If you want to know what a politician really thinks, wait till he or she leaves office. It’s when politicians no longer have to court votes, or worry about party discipline, that they finally speak their true mind.

Plenty will say that explains this week’s intervention by the former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain. On Thursday, he was due to give a public lecture at Swansea University, departing from the position he has held for the past two decades and which represents the consensus of the international community: that the best answer to the conflict between
Israelis and Palestinians is two states, living side by side.

Now, Hain wonders if the moment for a two-state solution has passed and if it is time instead to look at a different scenario: what he calls a “common state” shared by the two peoples – in other words, a one-state solution.

“Ah,” many JC readers will say. “So, when Hain was in government, he was just paying lip service to Israel’s right to exist as a secure, independent state. All along, he actually believed in the old pro-Palestinian demand for a single state, in which the Zionist dream of Jewish self-determination would be swallowed up and forgotten. He’s no friend of ours after all.”

Such a view will be temptingly simple but unfair. Hain is clear in setting out his own credentials as a former Middle East minister under Tony Blair, one who worked closely with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders. He also underlines his understanding of what Israel is up against: the “unremitting hostility” of its neighbours, the state of “siege” the country has had to endure since its birth. He is explicit, too, that his past support for two states was sincere, that he believed it to be “the best plan for peace and the fairest outcome.”

But, now, reluctantly, Hain has concluded that time has all but run out for the two-state solution. He offers the familiar reasons: the serial failure of past negotiations; the Hamas-Fatah split; and, above all, the fact that “the land earmarked for a viable Palestinian state has been remorselessly occupied by Israeli settlers.” As others have put it, it’s hard for two people to agree to split a pizza when one is gobbling up slice after slice as they talk.

Doubtless many will dispute Hain’s conclusions, finding him premature in pronouncing two states near-dead. But whether he’s too pessimistic is not really the point. He is a mainstream political figure — with experience, in Belfast, of a bitter conflict also once deemed intractable — beginning to look seriously at an idea previously deemed beyond the pale.

In that sense, his words are a warning. He is saying that, if Israel, through its constant building in the West Bank, sends the message that it just cannot contemplate partitioning the land, then eventually the world will start thinking of other arrangements. It will look at the territories envisaged for a Palestinian state, now dotted with Jewish settlements and criss-crossed with Israeli roads, and decide that disentangling these two peoples has become impossible.

Very well, international opinion will say. If you refuse to divide the historic Land of Israel, then you must share it — making it “a common state” for two nations.

I remain opposed to that outcome: I believe it absurd to ask two peoples who cannot agree to divorce, to get married instead. But if Israel refuses to make two states possible, then it will eventually be stuck with the alternative: a single state in which Jews will fast become a minority. And no one will be able to say we weren’t warned.

Comparing Ukip members to Walter Mitty is an insult – to Walter Mitty | Jonathan Freedland

Nigel Farage is wrong, the great daydreamer had more grip on reality than some Ukip misogynists and homophobes

Nigel Farage's admission that Ukip has more than its fair share of Walter Mittys might look like the very latest in candour from the man who styles himself as a straight-talker, but it is in fact an insult. Not to the rogue Ukip officials and activists Farage to whom was referring, who have embarrassed the party with their off-message opinions – but to Walter Mitty.

For the great James Thurber creation – played first on film by Danny Kaye and recently revived by Ben Stiller – is a harmless daydreamer, lapsing into pleasant fantasies in which he himself is cast as the hero. Ukip's problem is not an over-abundance of fantasists, but an excess of misogynists, homophobes and those whom David Cameron famously referred to as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".

You would not have caught Mitty mocking a disabled student, asking him whether he was Richard III, as the MEP and Ukip member Godfrey Bloom did at the Oxford Union last week. Mitty may be in his own little world, but he is not so disconnected from reality as to suggest a series of floods might be God's punishment for a change in the law allowing same-sex marriage. That was left to Ukip councillor David Silvester, sparking the rather brilliant social media response, @Ukipweather.

So Farage is letting himself off too lightly when he announces that Ukip will now get a tighter grip on its candidate selection to keep out the Mittys. Ukip's problem goes beyond a tendency to daydream. Bloom was not daydreaming when he called women who don't clean behind the fridge "sluts" and argued that Britain should not be giving aid to "bongo-bongo land". Nor was Ukip treasurer Stuart Wheeler spacing out when he said that because women come "absolutely nowhere" when they take on men at chess, poker or bridge, they had no right to expect representation on corporate boards.

It's similarly disingenuous to pretend that this is a matter of a few, kooky individuals (albeit ones at the top of the Ukip hierarchy). Last week Farage had to confess that the party's 2010 manifesto was "drivel", with its pledges to repaint trains in traditional colours, to bring back "proper dress" at the theatre and to investigate discrimination against white people at the BBC. But Farage himself had launched the manifesto and written the foreword. Turning the clock back is not the fantasy of a handful of Walter Mittys: it's Ukip's core mission.

And yet none of this is likely to dent Ukip's standing in the polls. The eccentricity of its activists is already well known; it's "in the price", as the money men say. What's more, Ukip's brand is as the anti-politics party, the party that dares challenge "political correctness". These mini-scandals reinforce that aspect of its identity. If a serving Tory councillor (which Silvester used to be) had made that remark about the floods and equal marriage, it would have been far more damaging for the Conservatives than it was for Ukip.

Polls suggest Farage's army is still on its way to a very strong result in May's European elections. With the Lib Dems in government, Ukip is now the receptacle of the protest vote – and the contest for the European parliament is traditionally a protest election. But the general election of 2015 will be a different story. If Farage is dreaming that his party might top the poll in that battle, well, we'd better start calling him Walter.

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Jobbik is proof that it’s impossible to close Britain’s borders to bigotry | Jonathan Freedland

As Hungary's far right party starts campaigning in Britain, it's a sign that free movement of people means free movement of politics

We know what organised British racism looks and sounds like. We have a rough idea of the history, and most of us know the points of reference: Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts, Enoch Powell and his rivers of blood, the National Front. Over the years, we've even developed a typically British response to British fascism: ridicule. Recall the response to Nick Griffin's damp squib appearance on Question Time: the BNP leader, whose manner was less Führer than frustrated office manager, was instantly dubbed "Adolf Brent".

But that mindset might need a rethink. Events this weekend and over the last month suggest that, when it comes to organised racism, Britain has more than its own demons to contend with. Now, in a connected world and a linked Europe, what were once foreign racisms are right here.

Barring a last-minute ban from the home secretary, on Sunday Gábor Vona, the leader of Hungary's far-right Jobbik party, will address a rally in London. This is part stunt, part hard-headed electioneering. For Vona is here to woo the estimated 50,000 Hungarian expats living in the UK, more than half of whom live in London and the south-east of England. He wants their absentee votes in May's European elections.

And Jobbik is no BNP, confined to the outer margins of its country's politics. On the contrary, in 2010 it became Hungary's third-largest party, winning 17% of the vote and nearly 50 seats in parliament. It also has a claim to be Europe's most overtly racist party. A favourite target is Hungary's Roma minority, which could number as many as 800,000. Vona was the founder of the now banned, quasi-military Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard), whose garb and insignia evoke the pro-Nazi ultra-nationalist parties of Hungary's past – and whose slogans denounce "Gypsy crime".

Vona's proposed solution has a familiar ring. He wants Hungary's Roma to be confined to ghettoes. "The integration of Gypsies has failed," he says. "In most cases, segregation would be the most effective way of educating these people." A colleague elaborated that these "public order protection camps" would be fenced in, with inhabitants required to comply with a strict 10pm curfew.

Unsurprisingly, Jobbik is not too fond of Jews. In what is unlikely to be a coincidence, Vona's visit comes on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday. The party's deputy leader in parliament notoriously called for Hungary "to tally up people of Jewish ancestry" since they "pose a national security risk to Hungary". Impatient with criticism from Jewish leaders, a Jobbik MEP, Krisztina Morvai, said she'd prefer "those who call themselves proud Hungarian Jews played in their leisure with their tiny circumcised dicks, instead of besmirching me". It is the leader of this movement who this weekend will be in Britain – looking for the votes of people who live in Britain. This is no longer a Hungarian problem, far away from us. As of now, it's a British problem.

The same can be said of the quenelle, the much-discussed gesture performed by West Brom's Nicholas Anelka as he celebrated scoring against West Ham last month and which this week saw him charged by the FA. When he did it, few Britons would have recognised the action: it's not part of our political landscape, not one of our reference points. But, as Anelka would have known, the match was televised in France, where the gesture is understood all too well.

The quenelle is deliberately vague, a kind of repressed Hitler salute, rightly described by one French journalist as reminiscent of the thwarted Nazi arm-movement of Peter Sellers's Dr Strangelove. It is designed to dodge the law banning the full "Sieg Heil", while still offering the thrill of breaking the supposed taboo on antisemitism.

Anelka's defence – he has denied the FA charge – is that he was merely expressing solidarity with his chum, the pseudo-comedian and demagogue Dieudonne M'bala M'bala. If anything, that appears to make it worse. For Dieudonne's act is drenched in anti-Jewish racism. Of a French Jewish journalist he said, "When I hear Patrick Cohen talking, you see, I think of gas ovens." One sketch saw him present a heroism award to Robert Faurisson, who describes the Holocaust as a Jewish invention. He has an onstage fool, Jacky, who dances and prances wearing Auschwitz-style pyjamas, complete with yellow star. Dieudonne understands something comprehended by all antisemites: that for antisemitism to win, the Holocaust itself must be defeated, its place in the collective memory destroyed. For him, that means, if not outright denial, then at least mocking the victims of the Shoah and their memory. One Dieudonne video, "Shoahnanas", pouring derision on Jews just for being Jews, chills the blood in its echo of an earlier, lethal era.

Dieudonne's allies try to say the quenelle's target is not Jews, but "the system" or "the establishment". In which case, how to explain the social media craze for doing it in places calculated to hurt Jews: outside synagogues, by a poster of Anne Frank or at a Holocaust memorial? The explanation is that Dieudonne and his followers believe that "the system" and "the establishment" are in the hands of "the Jews". They are subscribers to that most aged antisemitic myth, that the world is run by a Jewish conspiracy.

Most of this was happily foreign to us, until Anelka brought it here. Whether through Premier League games on French TV or expat canvassing for European elections, we are now tangled up with the politics of other places in a way that would once have been unimaginable. The free mobility of people has brought the free mobility of their politics.

Some will see a paradox lurking here. Am I suggesting, like an anti-racist Alf Garnett, that we keep out these foreign xenophobes who come here with their funny gestures, spreading their strange, smelly hatreds? There was a hint of that in the Commonson Thursday, when London MP Frank Dobson urged Theresa May to ban the Jobbik leader and "keep this stinking, rotten, neo-Nazi alien out of this country". There's comedy in attacking a racist for being "alien", but you can see what Dobson was getting at. These are prejudices that lack in Britain the roots they enjoy in Hungary or France – and it's not wrong to want it to stay that way.

Ultimately, it may prove impossible to close the borders to such bigotry. Perhaps this is just another price of today's interconnectedness. But we will have to adjust to this new landscape and learn its contours, understanding things that would once have been comfortably distant. For they are here now.

Twitter: @Freedland

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Can evidence of mass killings in Syria end the inertia? Only with Putin’s help | Jonathan Freedland

With little appetite for western military intervention, diplomatic channels must be unblocked

The challenge for the people of Syria – besides staying alive, of course, in a civil war that has killed 130,000 and displaced millions – is to get the rest of the world to pay attention. For month after month, the killing grinds on and those outside Syria look the other way, either distracted or paralysed by the sense there is nothing that can be done.

It takes something very grave and shocking to break through that torpor. In August last year it was the apparent chemical attack on the Damascus suburbs of Ghouta, killing an estimated 1,400 people including more than 400 children. Now comes the report of three former war crimes prosecutors, saying they have seen compelling evidence of the systematic murder of some 11,000 detainees through starvation, beatings and torture, including the gouging of eyes and electrocution – and all that in just one part of Syria, with the strong suspicion that more such killing will have taken place elsewhere.

The source of this evidence is hard to fault: a former photographer for the Syrian regime who has since defected. The report's authors, who interviewed the source for three days, have no obvious axe to grind and are eminently credible: they served as prosecutors at the criminal tribunals on Sierra Leone the former Yugoslavia. Those facts will surely offset any misgivings over the report's origins: it was commissioned and funded by the government of Qatar, a player in the Syrian conflict on the anti-government side. The evidence is too overwhelming, and the reputations of those who have assessed it too strong, for this report to be dismissed as Qatari propaganda (though some will try).

Above all, it's the nature of this evidence that will have the greatest impact. One of the report's authors, Sir Desmond de Silva QC, told Radio 4's Today programme that the photographs were "reminiscent" of the first images of the Nazi concentration camps liberated in 1945. The pictures of extremely emaciated corpses reinforce his point. Similarly, it was the notion of children being gassed to death that struck such an emotive chord when the massacre at Ghouta was revealed last year. It seems we have an unspoken measure when judging atrocity: anything that evokes memories of the Holocaust enters an especially dark category.

Which is why this, like Ghouta, might break through the lethargy and inertia that has blanketed so much discussion of Syria. Ghouta prompted President Obama to say a red line had been crossed and to threaten military action, which at one point seemed imminent. What will be the consequence now, if any?

There remains little appetite for armed intervention. David Cameron ruled it out after that post-Ghouta commons defeat. In an interview in the current edition of the New Yorker, Obama said of the prospect of action then, "it is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq". There is no reason to expect him to have changed that view now.

Instead, the best hope is for a diplomatic breakthrough. The Geneva II talks, which are due to open on Wednesday – and which doubtless explain the timing of the torture photos' release – could hardly have lower expectations, especially as the warm-up act has been a disinvitation to the Iranians. Nevertheless, the eventual outcome of the post-Ghouta flurry of activity could be an encouraging precedent. The threat of US military action led last September to a joint US-Russian initiative to disarm the Assad regime of chemical weapons, one that defied the predictions of immediate failure.

There is no reason why similar international determination could not produce substantial progress. The key now, as then, is Russia. If Vladimir Putin decides that his interests are no longer served by unqualified indulgence of Bashar al-Assad, then he will move and diplomatic channels will be unblocked. It has happened before, it can happen again. But first Russia needs to feel the heat of global outrage. These photos, and the horrific story they tell, might just generate it.

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From Rennard to Rochdale: whose side are you on in this war against femaleness? | Jonathan Freedland

Misogyny is endemic: on Twitter, in the Lords, in Peterborough. But the battle for equality is no longer just men v women

So here's how the game works. You're the plastic surgeon and Barbie is your patient, her medical notes helpfully provided in the app's blurb. "This unfortunate girl has so much extra weight that no diet can help her," it begins. "In our clinic she can go through a surgery called liposuction that will make her slim and beautiful. We'll need to make small cuts on problem areas and suck out the extra fat. Will you operate [on] her, doctor??"

You can see why the makers of that app reckon it's "suitable for children aged nine and over". It's bright, colourful and very simple: just wield the little virtual scalpel to sculpt a perfect body. Better still, it was free from Apple's iTunes store.

I say "was" because on Tuesday the game was removed from iTunes, after it became the target of a viral Twitter campaign. Fast work in what was a busy week for feminism. Word came of as many as 4,700 "lost girls", the estimated number of female foetuses aborted by parents who'd been hoping for a boy, a phenomenon apparent in communities with roots in the Indian subcontinent. Meanwhile, in what looked like a repeat of the soul-sapping Rochdale case, a court convicted a Peterborough gang of five men, some teenagers themselves, of multiple counts of rape and sexual abuse of young girls. Elsewhere, the Coronation Street actor Bill Roache and DJ Dave Lee Travis face sex-related charges of their own.

Meanwhile, female Liberal Democrats were warning that their party could become a no-go zone for women if Chris Rennard, whom they accuse of sexual harassment, goes unpunished. This week an inquiry set up by the party found that while the peer may have caused women distress and violated their personal space, there was no evidence he had acted in a sexually inappropriate way – even as more women went public to say that's what he had done to them.

In all the coverage of these alleged multiple and various episodes – some, it should be stressed, radically different in both kind and degree from others – one sentence leaps out. "We are already witnessing the sexist divide on Twitter," began Linda Jack of the Liberal Left group, campaigning for Rennard to face punishment for his actions: "women who are outraged and men who question what all the fuss is about."

That's certainly how these arguments always used to be seen, ever since the days when James Thurber could write a short story (later a film) called The War Between Men and Women. For many, it doesn't look much different now, women on one side of the barricade, facing a vast horde of men – some violent, some intrusive, some merely insensitive – on the other.

Yet that view hardly survives scrutiny. Too many women have fathers, brothers, sons and husbands whom they love for them to take seriously the old "all men are rapists" slogan. More than that, Thurber's polarity was too simplistic at both ends – for while it remains true that the overwhelming number of attacks on women are perpetrated by men, women are not always on their own side.

Note that the creator of that unofficial Barbie app is a woman, Corina Rodriguez. Note too that when the BBC Asian Network covered those sex-selection abortions this week, one man recalled how he had telephoned his mother to announce the safe arrival of a healthy baby girl. "Oh never mind," she said. Reporting on the practice of female genital mutilation in this country has painted a similar picture: women colluding in, and even insisting upon, an illegal practice that seems predicated on loathing of women and their bodies.

The glum truth is that when women are under attack, you can sometimes find a woman near or even among attackers. Feminists united in support of Caroline Criado-Perez last year, when her campaign to put Jane Austen on the £10 note triggered a deluge of misogynistic Twitter abuse, some of it threatening rape. This month two people were convicted – one a 23-year-old woman. Readers of women's magazines will not need to be told that often the harshest words, judging women chiefly by their bodies, come from other women. Over the course of a light piece in the Sunday Times recently, the female performers on Strictly were likened to three different animals: a donkey, a cougar and a cow. The writer was a woman.

Some would seize on this evidence gleefully, to say women are to blame for sexism along with everything else routinely laid at their door. That's adamantly not my point here. Rather, just as ethnic minorities can internalise the very worst things said about them over many centuries, so some women have imbibed so much misogyny, it's eventually got under their skin and found a home there.

Viewed like this, the battle for equality no longer resembles the war between men and women of old. But there is a war going on. It's a war against femaleness itself – one that is, to stress again, prosecuted chiefly by men, but all too often with the collaboration of women.

In this war, it's no longer obvious whose side you're on. For if a woman can sometimes be on the wrong side, that means men can sometimes be on the right side. I've written before of the obstacles that lie in the path of a man who wants to take a stand against misogyny, an awkwardness laid bare just this week as Russell Brand proclaimed he had formally renounced sexism – having been saved by "the love of a good woman."

But getting it wrong is no reason not to try to get it right. Later this month Jon Snow and others will gather for the Being a Man festival, to explore some of these vexed questions. If they're looking for a role model, they might want to consider the former director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer. He's committed now to exploring how the justice system might be reformed to improve conviction rates for rape, becoming more hospitable to women in the process. He questions whether there isn't a better approach than the current adversarial model, which can inflict on female victims a second ordeal.

Starmer's efforts suggest there is a way for men to play their part, fighting back against the war on femaleness. No striking of poses, just concrete, practical action, especially from those men who occupy positions of power. Or, as one of those Lib Dem women put it to Nick Clegg, it's time for men to man up.

Twitter: @Freedland

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Sex, politics and François Hollande: how France plays by its own rules | Jonathan Freedland

Following revelations of an alleged affair, a British or US politician would be told to show contrition, or resign. Not in France – vive la différence

Sex will succeed where wars in Syria and the Central African Republic, questions of racial tension and the future of the European Union have all failed. It will persuade the world to do what it has so rarely done before – and tune into a press conference by the president of France.

The Westminster press corps is already joking that it might as well put its feet up this afternoon. David Cameron's appearance before the House of Commons liaison committee is likely to be overshadowed by the main event in Paris, where François Hollande will face questions from the media. Journalists from the serious, establishment press will no doubt ask serious, establishment questions but someone, surely, will dare break what was for so long a taboo in the French media – and ask Hollande about his private life, specifically about last week's revelations in Closer magazine of an alleged affair with the actress Julie Gayet. It may take a foreign reporter to do it.

Now if this were happening in, say, London or Washington the pre-event hype would have a single, clear theme: we would be saying that the embattled prime minister/president was fighting for his political life. His job would be deemed to be hanging by a thread. Some at least would be predicting resignation.

But this is France. So far the only political fallout from the Closer revelations has been a slight uptick in the opinion polls for the president. You read that right. Conforming to Gallic stereotype, French voters appear to think more of Hollande now that they know his bodyguard ferries him by motorcycle for alleged late-night trysts with his lover. His ratings have improved by two points. Meanwhile, the story has spawned a social media phenomenon: an online game in which players have to navigate the president, complete with motorcycle helmet, to his Julie.

Seeing that poll boost, The Telegraph's Michael Deacon joked on Twitter that Cameron's political adviser Lynton Crosby is "focus-grouping the idea as we speak." That's funny because we know the opposite is true. Political consultants might boast that theirs has become a global business, with Australians like Lynton Crosby able to ply their trade in Britain, just as US guru Stan Greenberg has advised candidates in South Africa, Israel and Germany. These political wizards would doubtless insist that the fundamental rules of winning elections are near-universal, as applicable in Berlin as in Boston. But even they would admit that there are some areas where very great differences remain – with sex a prime example.

So if this was a US president rather than a French one facing the press today, his advisers would be insisting on complete honesty – no Clinton-style, wagging-finger pretence that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" – and total contrition. They would urge the president to say he was seeking spiritual counsel and that he was praying for the forgiveness and understanding of his wife and the American people.

God and prayer would not feature at an equivalent press conference in Britain. Instead, the traditional advice would be that a politician caught being unfaithful has only one course of action available: to announce that he is leaving his wife or partner because he has fallen in love with someone else. This, remember, was the ultimatum delivered to the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, when his affair with his secretary had been revealed: announce your marriage is over or resign.

In France, there are other options. Hollande can seize the moral high ground, saying it is the press who should be ashamed for intruding on his private life, that he never chose to publicise his relationships (unlike his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy) and that France was a better place when it did not pry into the lives of others (unlike those prurient, curtain-twitching English). He could even go big picture and say that this is why the NSA scandal has so appalled people the world over: because the right to a private sphere is a sacred part of being human and that no one deserves to have that violated, not even a president.

In Britain such pomposity would bring howls of derision. Said in the White House, those words would bring calls for impeachment. But when it comes to sex and politics, no universal rules apply. In France, you might just get away with it.


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The Chris Christie scandal proves it: strong leaders are dangerous | Jonathan Freedland

The disgrace of New Jersey's Republican governor shows how political strength can fast become bullying – or worse

You can learn a lot about a country from its scandals. In Britain we have Plebgate, revived today by a police officer's admission that he was lying when he said he'd seen Andrew Mitchell raging at protection officers manning the gates of Downing Street. At the heart of the scandal was class, a posh Tory cabinet minister accused of calling salt-of-the-earth coppers "plebs". What it's about now is the disgrace of yet another once-trusted British institution: the police. Both things say much about this country, about how it's always been and how it is now.

In France the scandale du jour is, naturally, sexual, with President Hollande photographed apparently making overnight visits to the home of an actress. To add to the exquisite Frenchness of the affair, the presidential security detail reportedly arrived to pick him up in the morning bearing a bag of croissants. Press disclosure of the romance hints at changing French attitudes to sex and privacy.

Meanwhile in the US, the great scandal rocking the republic centres on … traffic cones in New Jersey. There's no denying the comic aspects of the trouble now imperilling the state's Republican governor, Chris Christie, and – accounting for wider interest in the story – his presidential ambitions for 2016. It's a tale that could be a Sopranos pastiche, the governor's aides shutting off access to the nation's busiest bridge, creating four days of traffic chaos, just to punish a local mayor who had refused to back Christie's bid for re-election. But this provides more than an amusing insight into the hardball nature of New Jersey politics. It also says something about what we want in our leaders, here as much as in the US – and why we might be getting it wrong.

Start with Christie himself. Political scientists might study his Thursday press conference for years to come. He went long, standing by the podium for a full 108 minutes, deploying a technique familiar to fans of the West Wing. Talk until the reporters are begging for release. That way you can claim you've been candid: after all, you've addressed every possible question.

There are downsides, chiefly the risk of revealing more of yourself than you intended. Christie's performance showed him to be magnificently self-absorbed. He, rather than the people of Fort Lee, whose town was traffic jammed into paralysis, was the real victim, lied to by his "deceitful" staff. To long-serving allies, he all but announced, "You're dead to me". He denied that one key figure, a high school chum, had been anything of the sort. "You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don't know what David was doing during that period of time."

More risky, Christie made the classic error of turning what should be an end to questions into an invitation for more. By insisting he knew nothing of his aides' vengeful traffic scheme – serious because when politicians use government machinery to hurt their enemies it reeks of Richard Nixon – he's put a major bounty on any proof to the contrary.

More dangerous still, he promised that this action was the "exception, not the rule". On that score he is far more vulnerable. Even before "bridgegate", Christie was dogged by stories of punishment inflicted on those who had dared cross him – including a former governor suddenly stripped of police protection and an academic who lost state funding for his research.

This is now Christie's problem: that he will be seen as a bully with a gangster's approach to politics. The irony is that that's not so far from the image the Christie team had been cultivating for the would-be president. Opponents now frantically posting videos of Christie bellowing at and humiliating members of the public did not have to look very hard. Until this week, his team would eagerly post them, on the governor's own YouTube channel, regarding them as a source of pride. They were held to be proof of his tough, no-nonsense style, a refreshing alternative to the timid, focus-grouped political herd. But what was hailed as his greatest strength is now his greatest liability.

And strength is the key word. "Strong leader" is the medal every politician wants on his chest, pinned there by the voters. Those who have succeeded – Thatcher, Blair, Reagan – are those who've been branded strong, while weak is synonymous with failure: step forward, John Major. No matter what else the polls say, Conservative strategists draw comfort from the data showing David Cameron trumping Ed Miliband on the "strong leader" measure.

Yet the Christie affair suggests our desire for strength is a complicated business, that we want it but only up to a point. For a while, Republicans especially liked the fact that Christie seemed more Goodfellas than West Wing, happy to intimidate teachers or tell a disgruntled voter to "keep walking" (unless, one presumes, the voter wanted to get hit). But when that machismo turns into outright abuse of power, at the expense of large numbers of ordinary citizens, it loses its lustre. There is, it seems, a line that separates the muscular, decisive leader from the aggressive bully – a line Christie has crossed, to what could prove his fateful cost.

Perhaps we are already drawing the line in the wrong place. In April, the veteran political scientist and former professor of politics at Oxford, Archie Brown, will publish The Myth of the Strong Leader, suggesting we should cure ourselves of our attraction to the alpha male model of leadership. Once a dominant single individual rules, the way is paved towards "important errors at best, and disaster and massive bloodshed at worst". Brown is struck by Tony Blair's insistence in his memoirs that, when it came to the Iraq war, "the leader had to take the decision" rather than the cabinet. Brown believes this cult of the strong leader has blinded us to the successes of more collegial politicians. He cites Attlee and Truman, noting that one of the latter's greatest achievements was credited to someone else: the Marshall plan.

Strength may be what we look for in a weightlifter, but it's facile to make that the only criterion by which we judge our politicians. Instead, says Brown, we should look for "integrity, intelligence, articulateness, collegiality, shrewd judgment, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, flexibility, good memory, courage, vision, empathy and boundless energy".

While he's doing his professed "soul-searching" Chris Christie might want to run himself through that checklist and see how he's doing. And when the rest of us are next choosing a head of government, perhaps we should do the same.

Twitter: @Freedland

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Michael Bay’s stagefright has done us all a favour | Jonathan Freedland

By publicly showing their vulnerability, the likes of Bay, Scott Stossel and Allison Pearson are helping to break wider taboos

The gags were inevitable. Within minutes of Transformers director Michael Bay's panicked exit from a presentation at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas – apparently overcome with stagefright after the autocue broke down – Twitter was sniggering that at last he had done what thousands of others had wanted to do before him: he'd walked out of a Michael Bay production.

But mockery – laced with schadenfraude at witnessing the discomfort of someone otherwise blessed by wealth and success – will not be the only reaction to the footage of Bay's onstage meltdown. Many, many more will feel empathy. After all, fear of public speaking routinely takes first place in the league table of phobias. Psychology Today describes it "the thing we fear more than death". For those who have woken in a cold sweat dreaming they were standing dumbly before an expectant audience, Bay's walkout will feel like a great relief.

For it will confirm that even the most apparently alpha of alpha males can be overcome by anxiety. More proof came at the weekend, with the serialisation of My Age of Anxiety by Scott Stossel. Now, Stossel is a high achiever, editor of the highly prestigious Atlantic magazine. But he confesses to living in the shadow of near-overwhelming fear. For him, Bay's Las Vegas experience would be utterly familiar. As Stossel writes: "I've frozen, mortifyingly, onstage at public lectures and presentations, and on several occasions I have been compelled to run offstage. I've abandoned dates, walked out of exams, and had breakdowns during job interviews, on flights, train trips and car rides, and simply walking down the street."

He details his list of specific phobias. "To name a few: enclosed spaces (claustrophobia), heights (acrophobia), fainting (asthenophobia), being trapped far from home (a species of agoraphobia), germs (bacillophobia), cheese (turophobia), speaking in public (a subcategory of social phobia), flying (aerophobia), vomiting (emetophobia), and naturally, vomiting on airplanes (aeronausiphobia)."

What adds to the fascination of Stossel's story is that these terrors have not left him a gibbering wreck. Like Bay, he has achieved great professional success. Both men work as leaders, whether directing movies or editing a magazine. I was reminded of Tony Blair's constant admission, throughout his memoirs, that his chief emotion was very often fear, starting with his very first day in office and repeated every Wednesday before and during prime minister's questions: "PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowel-moving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question."

Of course, not everyone – no matter how lauded or powerful – can overcome their anxieties. Stossel reminds us that the great Charles Darwin was left housebound for years after his world-changing voyage on the Beagle, confined by "crippling agoraphobia".

Still, those high-profile figures now speaking candidly about their own such battles deserve our thanks. Through their honesty, a wider conversation can begin – one in which those who may previously have felt too ashamed to talk can begin to speak up or seek help. England cricketer Jonathan Trott's early return home from the Ashes had men on sports phone-in shows speaking about depression. By writing about her struggles with depression, the columnist and novelist Allison Pearson did something similar "for the growing army of depressed, middle-aged women". Alastair Campbell has broken some of the taboos around alcoholism. And there are many others.

Stossel admits that he was wary of admitting his anxiety, for fear it would diminish him in the eyes of others. The funny thing is, it only makes us admire him – or Trott or Pearson or Campbell – more. Fearlessness is not the same as bravery. Bravery is overcoming fear, which some of these people do every day of their lives. Which is why, even though he won't enjoy watching it, that little clip on YouTube might just be the most important movie Michael Bay ever makes.

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Ariel Sharon’s final mission might well have been peace | Jonathan Freedland

As one of Israel's founders he had the credibility to give up occupied territory – and even to face the demons of 1948

In truth, Ariel Sharon's journey ended long ago. Eight years have passed, almost to the day, since he was silenced by a stroke that left him lodged in the limbo between life and death. That state of ambiguity was strangely fitting for a figure who, after decades painted as either black or white – reviled by his enemies as the "butcher of Beirut", loved by his admirers as "Arik, King of Israel" – ended his life an unexpected shade of grey.

After a long career as his country's most fearless, some would say brutal, warrior – his father's gift to him on his fifth birthday was a dagger – and as patron to the settler movement, Sharon's final act was to dismantle some of the very settlements he had sponsored. In 2005 he ordered Israel's disengagement from Gaza, seized in the 1967 war in which Sharon had been a crucial, if maverick, commander.

When the stroke struck, he was poised to win an election that would, it was widely assumed, be followed by further withdrawals from the West Bank. The former general had unique credibility to do that – to fix borders that had remained provisional since the state was born – because he was drawn from Israel's founding generation. Sharon had fought in the 1948 conflict Israelis call their war of independence: despite having his arm in a plaster cast, he led a platoon. Even his name was given to him by Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion – turning the young Scheinerman into Sharon as if he were King Arthur anointing a knight.

Israel's current president, the apparently immortal nonagenarian Shimon Peres, was also a Ben-Gurion protege and key player in 1948, but he was never a soldier. The demise of Sharon means the 1948 combat generation has gone. And that matters more than you might think.

The explanation can be found in a new, immensely powerful book. My Promised Land by the Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit is a personal history of Israel, one that begins in 1897 with a boatload of dreamers yearning for Zion, sailing to Jaffa: their leader is a British Jew, the Rt Hon Herbert Bentwich – the author's great-grandfather. From there, Shavit offers us places and moments that between them tell the story of the last remarkable century, whether absorbing successive waves of Jewish refugees from the rubble of post-war Europe or building the secret nuclear reactor at Dimona, from the triumphs of the settlers to the failures of the peace movement. The book is not without flaws. Critics have faulted the scarcity of women, Mizrachim (Jews of Middle Eastern origin) and Palestinians in Shavit's narrative. There is no denying that his vantage point is that of Tel Aviv's male, liberal elite. He is an Israeli aristocrat, his link to Bentwich putting him on a par with those Americans who trace their origins to the Mayflower. By his own admission he is a Wasp, a White Ashkenazi Supporter of Peace.

But that does not negate the book's three great strengths. The first is context. Every time an interviewee is introduced – whether a great novelist or the unnamed engineer behind Israel's nukes – we are given their back story, the life that led to their views. You can still disagree with the most hawkish speakers, but it's useful to know the harrowing past of loss and violent bereavement – often but not only in the Holocaust – that shaped so many of them, the fear that transformed itself into a desperate longing to survive.

Similarly, Shavit resists the binary simplicities that afflict so much discussion of Israel-Palestine. His book will provide ammunition both to those who despise Israel and those who revere it, telling of its darkest deeds as well as its shining triumphs. Propagandists for both sides, who resemble each other so closely, could cherry-pick favourite facts to buttress their view – but both will end up disappointed. Shavit is a hawk on the Iranian nuclear threat, for example, but fierce in his denunciation of the post-1967 occupation. He slams Israel's hawkish supporters for failing to address the occupation and slams Israel's opponents for failing to address Israelis' deep fear of their own annihilation. To truly understand the country and the conflict, he says, you have to understand both: that "occupation and intimidation" are the twin pillars of the Israeli condition.

But Shavit goes further. He castigates his former comrades in the peace movement for focusing so narrowly on the territories conquered in 1967, as if returning them to the Palestinians will solve the entire conflict and bring blissful resolution. For, he insists, the heart of the matter is not 1967 but the birth of Israel in 1948.

In one chapter, he meticulously reconstructs events in the mainly Arab town of Lydda in July 1948, when soldiers of the embryonic Israeli army emptied the place of its Palestinian inhabitants and, according to Shavit, killed more than 300 civilians. In an unflinching account based on the testimony of those who did the killing, Shavit states baldly: "Zionism carrie[d] out a massacre."

Now, Shavit is not the first Israeli to stare the reality of 1948 in the face. He quotes a famously candid speech from 1956 in which Moshe Dayan did much the same. More than 30 years later, Israel's "new historians" excavated the archives, looking for the factual truth. Some of those described themselves as anti-Zionists, others as post-Zionists. But Shavit might be the first such voice from deep inside the Zionist mainstream to speak so directly of the events the Palestinians regard as the nakba, the catastrophe.

That represents a profound challenge to Israel and its supporters. Shavit is telling them, as an Israeli patriot profoundly committed to his country, that it can avoid this painful history no longer: it has to own up to it. His message to the Israeli left – and perhaps to John Kerry, now on yet another peacemaking trip to Jerusalem – is that it can delude itself no more that dealing with the relatively easy matter of the post-1967 occupation will be enough to bring peace. Ending the occupation is a worthy goal in its own right, Shavit says, but the real Palestinian grievance originates in 1948.

That thought fills the author with pessimism. He sees "no solution" to the clash of Palestinians who believe their land was stolen and Israelis who believe their collective lives depended on taking it. I think Shavit is right about the necessity for honesty, but wrong to believe this means a true peace is forever doomed. Much of what Palestinians demand is precisely the acknowledgement that in 1948 they did indeed suffer a nakba. If Israel could one day make such an admission, who knows what accommodation might follow?

The tragedy for both sides is that the right people to speak that truth were the founding generation. Those who fought the war of 1948 were best placed to close its wounds. An intriguing habit of Sharon's was to refer to places in Israel by their original, Arabic names – thereby acknowledging the truth that usually lies buried beneath the soil. Leading his nation to do the same could have been Ariel Sharon's final mission. They will have to do it without him.

Twitter: @Freedland

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