Dutch benefits scandal for Thompson Reuters Foundation

The childcare benefits affair is one of the worst scandals that the Dutch state has been involved in this century. It involves the authorities hounding thousands of parents over non-existent or trivial infringements in an anti-fraud frenzy that got out of control and that was skewed towards the most vulnerable members of society and minorities. My first story for the Thompson Reuters Foundation.

Members of the first parliamentary inquiry into the childcare benefits scandal, December 2020

Amsterdam’s struggle with its sex and drugs image

Amsterdam, sex and drugs – for The New European

Image by Erik Tanghe from Pixabay

When Gaza meets Ukraine – covering MH17, last post

No, Gaza has nothing to do with Ukraine, at least not that I know of. The headline’s an allusion to something that happened to me personally a couple of days into covering the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, for the Washington Post, from Amsterdam. The crash happened on Thursday 17 July, which was well into the Israeli attack on Gaza. On the Saturday morning, while I was up to my neck in the MH17 story and all its sad corollaries, I received a screed in my inbox from an old friend of the family excoriating me for not standing behind Israel and for condemning it over the Gaza offensive. Oddly, I had not written about Israel for years, and I was not about to either at a moment when I was dealing with a completely different kind of disaster. It seemed the rant was based on what I had said to people in private. It shook me up a bit but on the other hand brought home to me how emotional people become when confronted with their worst fears, even if these are not always entirely reality-based.

St Vitus Chrurch, Hilversum
Mother and sister of victim of MH17 sign condolence book in Hilversum

Emotion was also the focus of the coverage of flight MH17 in the days immediately after the disaster. The newspaper was clear: we want to have an insight into who the victims were and into what the next of kin are going through. The problem was that Malaysia Airlines and the Dutch authorities were doing there damnedest to keep the families away from the press, see my previous post. But several of them had taken to the social media, either to mourn their loved ones or express frustration about the slow pace of the flow of information. Jeanne Hornikx posted on facebook that she felt she was not being kept informed sufficiently on the fate of her daughter Astrid, who had boarded flight MH17 with her boyfriend Bart Lambregts, from the southern town of Roosendaal. Both teachers, they had been looking forward to a holiday before settling down, Mrs Hornikx told me on the Friday morning, less than a day after the crash had happened:

“They were together for three years and were looking for a house in Roosendaal to move in together. This was going to be their big trip before moving in together,”

Mrs Hornikx was in tears when I talked to her over the telephone but she saw no problem in describing what she was going through to a newspaper reporter. For her, it was not a case of being protected and being in a hotel with other families who had lost people on flight MH17.

“I feel more of a need to get support from family and friends here, who come to my home, rather than sit there all together. Everybody’s suffering is different.”

Plenty of Dutch reporters said they agreed with the idea of keeping the families out of the public eye but in practice their media organizations also scoured the land for next of kin to talk to. If you look at the photo above, there was a slew of photographers and other Dutch journalists on the Saturday after the crash in the St Vitus church in Hilversum, a town in the center of the country that had lost three families in the MH17 crash. The mother, sister and brother of one of the families, the Mastenbroeks, had come to sign the condolence book in the church. At first, they were taken aback by the media attention but eventually they talked to all the journalists present. It was visibly hard for them but they thought it important to explain who their daughter and sister had been. Tosca Mastenbroek, the sister, said this about Tina:

Before she left, she went to say goodbye to my mother, who’s 81 years old. She traveled an hour-and-a-half by train to say goodbye, because she knew my mother was alone. That’s the person she was, always caring about other people.

There were memorial meetings at football clubs and schools in Hilversum as well but there the doors were closed to reporters. Some of the people attending were willing to talk when they came out but even then, in some cases, they were warned by others not to talk to the media. It is certainly worth debating to what degree people who have lost family, friends or loved ones should be shielded from media attention, and what constitutes too intrusive a media approach but the Dutch did circle the wagons quite a bit and there was no debate on how this affected the national, and international, situation on flight MH17. After the weekend, starting with the Dutch government briefing parliament on Monday 21 July, politics would take over.

Duthc government briefing parliament
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte briefing the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs on MH17 on the Monday after the crash

The briefing was a remarkable object lesson in how the political mood can turn very quickly once politicians get hold of a theme they can work with and how a government scrambles to deal with any perceived weakness. To start with, all MP’s present at this briefing of the parliamentary subcommittee on foreign affairs, expressed support for the government’s handling of the crisis, while in my opinion it had done very little, apart from backing up Malaysia Airlines and keeping the next of kin out of the limelight. But the focus very quickly shifted to one aspect of Dutch policy. The government emphasized that the first priority was getting all the victims home and that pointing at the guilty parties and taking measures against them might make that harder, and therefore that had to wait for now. Other governments, such as the Australian and British ones, had been much more outspoken in their remarks. In a second round of questioning, MP’s pounced on this and took the government to task for not being robust enough in its response. The PM, clearly put upon, replied thus:

I realize that many people want us to establish as quickly as possible what happened so that we can state who was to blame but I have to point out the dilemma that we are facing, which is that never ever should assigning blame lead to diminished chances of recovering the bodies and carrying out an independent inquiry.

It is difficult to say if and how the situation could have been handled better but  some mistakes were made. It is not surprising that a small country such as the Netherlands has to work through its allies, in the first place the EU but also the US. And nobody wanted to insert themselves militarily into a shooting war some 40 kilometers from the Russian border. But one thing became clear, that apart from using the downing of MH17 to put pressure on Russia, the US did very little to back up its early assigning of the blame to the Ukrainian separatists, nor did it in any way signal a willingness to provide any kind of military or even diplomatic muscle to a potential Dutch, European Union or even UN response.

It seems in retrospect that the Dutch government made a series of crucial mistakes during the early days of the crisis. If the crash site was going to be secured, and for that to make to make any sense, it should have pushed for tough action immediately, within hours of the flight going down. When it was too late, it stated openly that it was soft-pedaling on dealing with the guilty party, thus making itself susceptible to being pressured to do more, leading to its third mistake: at a very late stage preparing to send an armed mission and then having to take that option off the table when it proved, as could have been foreseen, impractical. In the midst of all this came the return of the first remains of the victims to the Netherlands in what became a government-boosting televised spectacle with an embarrassingly self-congratulatory afterglow.

Return of victims of flight MH17
Return of the first victims of flight MH17 to the Netherlands, Eindhoven military airport

That the return of the remains of countrymen from abroad can become a controversial affair we’ve seen, for example, from the infamous American casket ban that left the arrival back in the US of some 5000 American military personnel killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan not covered by the media, specifically not by cameras. In the case of MH17, the Dutch government chose to go the other way, drastically so.

It called the first national day of mourning in more than 50 years for Wednesday 23 July, the day the first remains were to be flown back from Ukraine. Rather than looking at who this was actually for and what were the politics behind it, the Dutch commentariat largely engaged in a round of navel-gazing over whether a national day of mourning was part of the national character. And true, it was all taken from a very un-Dutch script. Flags were half-mast, church bells rung throughout the day and some places of entertainment and festivals were closed. The arrival of the two military planes at Eindhoven military airport was again accompanied by church bells and when they were at a standstill, the last post sounded, followed by one minute of silence. Then, in a drawn-out choreography, the 40 coffins were taken out of the planes, one by one, by military personnel and placed in hearses. Then all the hearses left from Eindhoven to Hilversum in a long procession, for which parts of two highways were closed off, with throngs of people watching along the roads and on overpasses.

True, by many accounts the families of the victims felt strengthened by what was seen as a national display of solidarity and a dignified return of the first remains. And I don’t mean always to rain on everyone’s parade  but I have a couple of slight misgivings about the way this went down. First of all, and this was confirmed to me by officials, ‘sending a message’ had become part of the whole ceremony. A message to whom? I assume to a domestic public – that the government had succeeded – and internationally – that this was being taken very seriously indeed in the Netherlands. The other thing that bothered me was the collective pat on the back that the Dutch gave themselves for how they extended this most basic of courtesies to the victims and their loved ones. In all this, I too often missed a sense of basic humanity, of raw emotion and of sincere empathy. From beginning to end, from the moment the flight went down to the return of the first remains, I felt that stage-managing the ‘situation’ trumped almost everything else.