Luke Johnson, entrepreneur and business commentator, discusses terrorism's growing menace with historian Michael Burleigh and Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson
Daniel Johnson: Luke, you’re a businessman, operating in a number of different fields from bookselling to broadcasting, restaurants to greyhound racing. What’s been your experience of terrorists and political activists and the ways in which they try to manipulate business?
Luke Johnson: I wrote recently about this in the Financial Times, it was stimulated by a fairly vigorous campaign, which isn’t necessarily full of direct threats to life, but has an undertone of menace about it, as regards a particular book that extremist Islamic groups clearly don’t want published because they believe it is sacrilegious and offensive. There is clearly some form of orchestrated campaign to try to object at every level of the book distribution world, be it publishers or booksellers.
DJ: This is The Jewel of Medina.
LJ: Exactly. And I hadn’t seen this much written about, although I have read about the fact that the publisher’s offices had been firebombed. I believe there have been some arrests over that. It struck me that it was only one of several instances of businesses that I’m involved with which have had to deal with extremists of one sort or another, and radical Muslims are by no means the only sorts of groups who have threatened them. In fact, the much more pervasive and difficult group that I’ve been dealing with over a couple of years now are animal rights activists, some of whom object to greyhound racing. These are not people you can reason with, and they have in certain instances resorted to very violent behaviour, and in one case arson. There was then another instance, all of these are quite unrelated, of an individual who hurt himself with a home-made bomb, luckily no one else, in a restaurant I’m involved with in Exeter, which got a lot of attention, and he’s since been charged and found guilty of certain offences.
I suppose I saw, pattern is the wrong word, but an experience of a number of cases of threatening extremist behaviour impinging on normal lawful business. How does business react to this challenge, is it a growing problem for business, what are the different strategies that one could use to cope with it, how do the authorities react, vis-à-vis the commercial world? That’s what stimulated me to write. If you run a business you are dealing with the public, you have staff, you have to think about your reputation. The challenge is, are you willing to stand up for political and moral principles, but at the same time potentially endanger your people, and threaten your profits and the interests of your shareholders? These are difficult issues, ethical issues and others, that business owners and managers have to consider, if they’re in certain areas, particularly industries like the communication business.
DJ: Michael, as an historian, you’ve looked perhaps more than anyone else into the culture of terrorism, the world from which these people come, the intersection between terrorism and politics, business or crime. And terrorism has a long history of attacking symbols of capitalism, the most obvious one is 9/11 but one thinks also of the kidnappings of the Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades back in the 1970s.
Michael Burleigh: The bombings in Canary Wharf and the City by the IRA.
DJ: The IRA, too, deliberately targeted businesses. There’s a whole history of this before we even get onto things like piracy, which you’ve also written about. How do you see all this?
MB: What Luke is primarily concerned with are attempts to intimidate businesses, to interfere with rights of free speech through interdicting things like this book. But also it’s been going on in lots of other countries, in Algeria where they murdered novelists for writing books they didn’t like, and lots of journalists were murdered in the early ’90s by Islamists.
Luke quite rightly draws attention to animal rights fanatics who are essentially trying to inhibit the right of scientists to engage freely in certain types of research – there are ethical conventions that scientists themselves have drawn up. But I don’t think that’s actually really typical of the more sinister types of racket that terrorists have been involved in. Ethno-nationalist terrorism, which is deeply embedded in particular communities, is more typical. I’m thinking of Sinn Fein-IRA in Northern Ireland and organisations like Eta in Spain, where there’s a much more organised crime-type, very regular, deep-seated and long term form of extortion going on. It can literally range from deciding you’re short of funds on a Friday night, so let’s go and stiff the butcher, to much more sinister things where for a time Sinn Fein-IRA got a lock on the Irish building trade. It’s like a cancer that got into the entire UK construction industry, and they controlled the supplies of labour and raw materials. One up from that are the very sophisticated insurance frauds – the levels of insurance fiddles going on in Northern Ireland were quite phenomenal. When half-a-dozen of their nags went off a cliff because they were scared by army helicopters, farmers would say that these were all prize geldings, and people would testify to this.
And you’ve certainly got this going on all over the Basque country, where the terrorists are very closely connected to the community, and they just routinely take protection money. And they’ve done it on the other side of the Spanish-French border: they drove the restaurateur Alain Ducasse out of the region because they thought he was parodying their
native cuisine, so they bombed his resort near Biarritz.
Where it’s again very evident is in unstable places like Colombia, Niger and Sudan, where they’re practising very large-scale kidnapping, so where you’ve got foreign companies, like oil and raw material exploration companies, the real premium is on kidnapping the foreign technicians, really skilled people, and holding them to ransom. At the moment, there are about 16,000 people round the world who are being held to ransom. The most recent case involves the Chinese National Oil company in Sudan, about eight of whose people have been kidnapped, three of whom were killed in the snatch. So it’s not an exclusively Western problem. Or take the Niger Delta, where the terrorist organisations posture partly as environmentalists, and partly that they’re saying that Western oil companies are not employing enough native labour, the skilled positions are all occupied by foreigners, so that’s a big problem. And of course the FARC in Latin America, which has evolved from being notionally some kind of Marxist organisation into a professional kidnapping outfit. FARC’s heavily involved in cocaine trafficking, and has connections with its charming neighbour [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez.
DJ: Luke mentioned the point that businesses are particularly vulnerable because they’re under pressure from their shareholders and customers, and business depends so much on confidence
LJ: Goodwill, people feeling safe and staff not feeling threatened.
DJ: And on a grander scale, when terrorists launch a whole-scale attack on the business community then there is always the danger that business may put pressure on the politicians to concede whatever is needed. But it also works the other way – sometimes politicians don’t back up businessmen who are being intimidated. Luke, have you on the whole found that the authorities did back you up?
LJ: I’ve been very impressed by the reaction of the authorities as regards the animal rights activists. It seems to me that the legislation in recent years has changed in Britain, and they have created a special arm of the police to deal with this particular threat. Clearly it took some years of very serious intimidation, in cases like Huntingdon Life Sciences, and an enormous amount of lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry and medical research. Serious people stated that if Britain wishes to remain a civilized destination for investment, jobs and medical discoveries then they need protection from these very dangerous people. There have been one or two high-profile prosecutions with very long sentences, huge deterrents, and our direct experience with the authorities is that they are well-resourced, they understand their enemies extremely well, they have some impressive databases, and that if you involve them, they can be very proactive.
In a particular case, which I can’t go into for legal reasons, that is progressing through the system now, I’m impressed by how seriously they’re taking it. I’m not a member of the scientific community, but my belief is that things have improved dramatically because the perpetrators of violence against academics, scientists and others now realise that the consequences will be very unpleasant indeed if they are caught and found guilty. A lot of these people are misguided, they are not prepared for the idea that if they attack laboratories or scientists’ homes or whatever they could serve very long jail sentences.
MB: That’s certainly right, in that particular case. Of course the police in Spain or Northern Ireland would say in no circumstances should you pay protection money and all the rest of it, but because the terrorism is in a place where everybody’s extended family lives, you are just going to quietly pay because they’ll start killing every member of your family if they have to. Whatever is the official line, something else will be happening, for the sake of a quiet life – the emphasis on “life”.
These big corporations taking on huge risk insurance for things like the eventuality of kidnapping or ransoming, they’d just essentially prefer to pay up. And it’s my understanding that in the case of the Somali pirates I was writing about for Standpoint [November], most people would pay up as well. Because these are very unstable places, with, shall we say, not the best trained armed forces or policemen in the world, one of the biggest risks to the hostages in a lot of the cases I’ve looked at is that, other than the point when people are kidnapped, it’s when the authorities mount a rescue operation they’re likely to catch a bullet.
That’s just a fact of life in those parts of the world. So the freeing of Ingrid Betancourt after a very long period as a hostage of FARC was not really typical. The Colombians mounted an incredibly complicated and sophisticated rescue operation. Companies have to consult professional security firms, of which there are a lot made up of former intelligence or military personnel, who would strengthen their security protection. They would probably advise them to use non-foreign workers in key places to take out at least one of the key claims that the terrorists would be making. The insurance even covers media management of the relatives of the hostages, lest they screw up negotiations. So you can do that, and where it’s feasible you can try and rescue people – but with all those caveats about what might happen to the hostages.
DJ: Luke, you mentioned the point about moral and political principles being at stake here. Now in business, people are generally a bit dismissive about airy-fairy talk about morality and that kind of thing. But surely in this area it’s absolutely crucial, in the sense that, if governments and police and so on start to say “maybe it’s better if we don’t publish controversial books, or do controversial research in universities, because it’s going to upset people”, then it actually impinges on the market. If you can’t sell the books you want to sell, then that’s bad for Borders, and if Huntingdon Life Sciences can’t do research then that’s bad for the whole pharmaceutical industry, and for the progress of medicine. So do you think this is an interesting area where more abstract talk about defending civilisation, defending our values, actually has a very concrete application; it’s very important to defend things like the rule of law, and freedom of speech, simply because you can’t function in a capitalist free society without those things.
LJ: Clearly you’re right that capitalism works in free markets where the rule of law applies, but of course that’s theoretical. The brutal reality, as Michael said, is that for a lot of businesses faced with, say, kidnapping, it’s easier to take out an insurance policy and have the insurance firm pay if there’s a claim. Those higher premiums get transmitted through the market, and it’s probably easier to go along with a low-profile attitude, because that way there won’t be any adverse consequences with staff, suppliers etc. and they will take the view that “we were unlucky this time but it will be someone else’s turn next, if we can get out of this hole, it’s not our problem.”
Clearly in certain societies, in parts of southern Italy for example, there isn’t even the pretence of dressing up what is essentially gangsterism as some sort of political movement, it is sheer criminality. Doing business on a straightforward basis is nigh-on impossible, because business has co-operated with and tolerated criminal behaviour for so long that it is now embedded in their way of life. And clearly that is enormously damaging on many levels.
MB: If you go and see the brilliant Gomorrah, you’ll see the fertility of the rackets that the [Neapolitan mafia] Camorra make, which are just extraordinary. It’s not just disposing of toxic waste on behalf of crooked factory owners, it’s the haute couture industry, they seem to have got a lock on that too.
LJ: The bottom line is that if you’re just talking about criminality at any level being involved in business, business becomes dramatically less efficient. And therefore it’s less productive for everyone in the entire community, including, obviously, shareholders. So, to take the easy option is, even in a purely commercial sense, a bad idea, because everyone needs a rake-off. So investment is squandered, resources are misapplied, and it’s just a really unproductive way of carrying on. And therefore a sensible rule of law is not only morally and ethically advisable, it’s actually commercially advisable.
MB: One heard all the time, when Gordon Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the beginning of every year he would announce his triumphs in the war on terror. But then one evening I listened to the BBC’s The Financial World Tonight, with Fran Abrams, a very in-depth report on terrorism and the financing thereof. And it showed how so many of the measures that the government had introduced to stop illicit flows of money in and out of the country were pitched so high in terms of the sums involved that it didn’t actually impact on terrorist activity, certainly not any jihadist activity in this country, where the cost of the operations, you could put it on your credit card quite frankly, your stolen credit card in their case. I think the cut-off point was around £8,000, and most of these operations cost far less than that, so they were just totally below the government’s radar screen, as they ruefully acknowledged.
DJ: On the other hand, it was very useful in dealing with Icelandic banks.
MB: Well, quite! 9/11 itself only cost $500,000 to mount, which is a trivial amount of money for a trillion dollars’ worth of damage.
DJ: Is there a danger that even countries like Britain and America could become affected by that corrupt nexus between terrorism and criminality?
MB: I think if my memory serves me well – and I’m not an expert on organised crime at all – but in the 1960s Britain was very successful at stopping organised criminals interloping into the country. I always remember they banned the actor George Raft because of his mob connections, and I think the exemplary sentences handed to the Kray brothers were designed to curb that kind of really sinister organised crime from taking off in this country, although obviously we have gangsters in the country. I am very worried about the ease with which various Russians are allowed to come and settle here, and the presence of their money, and what impact it might be having in general. I think that’s potentially the most worrying thing.
LJ: My experience has been that, generally speaking, Britain and America are two of the most honest places to do business in the world. I don’t believe extortion, blackmail and organised crime have extended their tentacles into large parts of our society. I think there are certain niches, certain ethnic communities, where under the surface there is human trafficking, for example. This can be a serious problem, but I don’t believe corruption is nearly as endemic as in Russia for example, where any investor must have very serious doubts. The fact is that this year the Russian stock market is down more dramatically than virtually any other, partly because of that, but partly because they invaded a neighbouring country. I think the whole issue surrounding BP’s vast investment in Russia, and the risk that they were going to be disenfranchised, the implication that the authorities were somehow cooperating with that extortion and the removal of their chief executive is partly why I think there has been a massive flight of capital from Russia. I think the Russian authorities have realised that, and money has talked. People and companies will not invest in countries where the rule of law does not apply. There are places like Sicily and southern Italy, and many countries in South America, where they have very low standards of living, relatively speaking, and a lack of development, partly because capitalists don’t believe they will be treated fairly. So they won’t invest, and who can blame them? When their staff are threatened and their assets are stolen, why should they?
DJ: Can I ask you about a different but related problem, wearing your hat as Channel 4 Chairman. Last year there was a very remarkable Dispatches documentary Undercover Mosque. The worrying thing about that case was partly what they discovered was going on in the mosques, the preaching of extremist views. But even more worrying in some ways was that the police investigated, but instead of attempting to bring prosecutions against some of these extremists, who were quite clearly breaking the law, they decided instead to turn on Channel 4, and condemn them…
LJ: They made a formal complaint to Ofcom, the regulator.
DJ: Exactly; which was ultimately rejected wasn’t it?
LJ: Absolutely. We and the production company sued them for libel, and they settled and apologised.
DJ: But are you confident that this was a one-off case where some bad decisions were made – not necessarily at the highest level? They did fight the case all the way through. Are you worried that this implies some elements of the authorities would simply rather not know what might be happening in mosques, and that their instinctive reaction is to shoot the messenger, when all you were doing was an ordinary bit of investigative journalism?
LJ: Well, I think the overall outcome was very satisfactory. West Midlands Police were found to have behaved very badly indeed, and the media covered it extensively, with a great deal of editorial comment saying it is absolutely not the role of the police to attack legitimate reporting of extremists’ behaviour. I think they and other government bodies will think very hard indeed about taking a similar tack again.
I think the worrying aspect is the idea that certain people in positions of power and influence – like the police – are so obsessed by political correctness, that they feel even the implication of some sort of racist behaviour or mischaracterisation of certain groups is a worse crime than some elements of our society promoting murder and violence. And I think this is deeply wrongheaded. Some arms of government and their obsession with being politically correct can lead to a form of appeasement of people of violence, which is very bad for a civilised way of life.
MB: I’d be interested in just hearing from Luke, the precise steps whereby the police ended up making a complaint to Ofcom. I mean, it’s not for the police to comment on the quality of a television programme, so who actually did it? Did they do it off their own bat, or did someone egg them on?
LJ: The answer is they haven’t explained…
MB: I bet they haven’t.
LJ: In the immediate aftermath we were concerned that we were possibly going to be prosecuted, but we were robust in our defence, and we were right to be, but it ultimately cost the taxpayer a lot of money: their legal fees, our legal fees and damages too. Has one heard of a single disciplinary procedure or someone being sacked for squandering taxpayers’ assets like that, and wasting everyone’s time with some completely madcap attempt to inhibit legitimate reporting? No. So I am very pleased that the coverage given to it was extensive, and it was affirmation that organisations like Channel 4 are entirely right to do careful, well researched, legitimate reporting into this sort of behaviour, because that is what investigative journalism is about, and why it is an important part of a free society. In many of the countries of the sort you mentioned earlier, like Algeria, Colombia, Venezuela or Russia, inhibition of the press is one of the signs of a totalitarian regime, or a criminal regime. And coming back to the fact that essentially we live in a law-abiding society, having a very rigorous and free press and media broadcast is a very important part of our way of life.
MB: I was talking to Peter Clarke, the former head of the counter-terrorism police, the other night and he said that he rather endorsed my view in my book, Blood and Rage that we are essentially dealing with a lot of very angry people, and that the ideology is a bit of a camouflage for an underlying pathology. I’m very interested in how these emotions are manipulated. You saw it in the case of the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, where the time lag between the publishing of the cartoons, and adding in some images that didn’t belong there in the first place, and then the explosion of anger, and the burnings of flags, and people being killed, and the boycotting of Danish products all over the Middle East. It took some time to crank that up, and the people who manipulate these situations are at least as worthy of attention as the perpetrators of actual violence.
DJ: This brings us back to where we started, with the issue that faces you now at Borders, Luke, and faces all the bookshops.
LJ: All the bookshop chains are being harassed.
DJ: We’re talking here about a book – The Jewel of Medina – that hardly anybody has actually read.
LJ: It hasn’t even got a publisher.
DJ: In America Random House dropped it as soon as some academic criticised it.
MB: Well, that was particularly disgraceful, the way in which the person concerned got in touch with her Muslim friends to alert them that this shocker was coming, and I just thought that was so cynical.
LJ: You wonder what the motivation was – publicity seeking? Hard to understand…
DJ: But that’s one example where to some
extent the extremists have so far won,
because they have actually prevented the publication of this book.
MB: Except in Serbia, of all places, where it has been published. There’s another difficulty which we haven’t touched upon, which is where exactly do you draw the line between legitimate artistic expression and your freedom to do it, and then just wilful provocation. Writing a novel is not a risk-free activity. I’m not saying I take this view myself, but where would you draw the line between someone writing a novel in good faith, and then some rubbishy comedian who might just make some ridiculous statement or do something provocative about Islam or Muhammad or whatever? Given how we’ve all been pretty sickened by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, are we just going to back up everything on the grounds that it’s edgy, provocative, that it’s free speech?
LJ: It’s obviously an extremely difficult, highly subjective area. What one person might consider entertaining or amusing or valid, another might consider deeply offensive. And it seems to me the law in this area is now muddled, because there is legislation where an awful lot of things could be interpreted as offensive and therefore potentially criminal, so I don’t think that helps the matter, and a lot of the law is driven by a politically correct agenda, which I personally think is bad law.
MB: And in practice, no non-Muslim or comedians not of a Muslim background would have anything to do with that, I suspect, in case they got the chop. You can have an Iranian.
LJ: Omid Djalili.
MB: But woe betide anyone who wasn’t from that kind of background doing that. They won’t touch it.
LJ: Well, the whole area is surrounded with hypocrisy, isn’t it? Certain ethnic groups can tell jokes against their own group but someone from outside that group can’t. And certain ethnic groups are considered fair game and others are not. For example, I heard on BBC radio recently a comedian being really unpleasant about Australians. Now, if he’d been unpleasant about another group of people he could have been prosecuted, but Australians are fair game, because they’re white and rich.
DJ: Is there something we should be doing that we’re not doing at the moment? Luke, you’re really saying the law should steer clear of political correctness, and concentrate on actual criminal activity.
LJ: Yes. Where there are clear and obvious threats of criminality, then I think the law needs to be informed, resourced, and have sentencing guidelines, for example, and legislation that means the deterrent effect of catching certain people red-handed is very severe indeed. Because I think most of these groups do actually react to the possibility that they will serve long sentences. Now suicide bombers are a whole different league. I don’t quite know how you are going to inhibit them, with those sorts of tools at your disposal, because certain extremists are clearly unbalanced and negotiating with them – trying to get them to see reason – is very difficult. So I don’t have any obvious solution there.
MB: I’d agree completely, that one should in a way re-orientate the police from this diversion of appeasing political correctness, which in turn would involve dismantling the bureaucratic structures of multiculturalism that were stupidly put in place and that many people are now rowing away from, that would be my first thing. And then to get the police to concentrate on the original remit of the police in the 1820s, which still seems to me worth looking at, which is to catch criminals, bring them before the law, and they are prosecuted. It really is as simple as that. They’re not social engineers; it really is a completely unrealistic expectation to turn the police into some branch of the social services or the Equality Commission. That’s not really what they’re about, and I do think we need to get back to those fundamentals.
DJ: And would you say protecting the right to carry on with legitimate business is an important part of that? Where there is intimidation or extortion going on, that it is the police’s job to protect those activities and create a space where business can be done?
MB: Yes. Business is at the heart of this country and of its prosperity, and businessmen and women should be protected in going about their lawful activities.
LJ: Well it always impresses me the length of sentences that serious bank robbers get. They get treated very harshly indeed, if they steal large sums of money and are found guilty.
MB: That’s stamped it out effectively hasn’t it? And let’s not forget the significant technological leaps all the time, robbing a bank became quite a difficult thing, so they switched to armoured security vans, so that was made more difficult. I think actually the police and business community can take actual concrete steps involving technology to minimise all sorts of activity, just always to try and keep one step ahead. The obvious thing with jihadists, certainly in this country and other countries, is counterfeiting and credit card fraud and all that sort of stuff. So you just have to keep up with them, and be one step ahead of them.
That goes for criticism as much as technology. While we have film studies courses ten a penny, no one appears to have applied such critical techniques to jihadist suicide bomber videos – which might reveal that the filmic structure is exactly the same as that used in porn movies- including the “money shot” repeated on a loop- in this case an explosion rather than an orgasm. We should also recall that Andreas Baader’s favourite reading material was Mickey Mouse comics rather than Marx.
So perhaps we should regard the ideological expertise of the Islamists with similar scepticism.