Friday 27 March 2009

27 March 2009

I’m not sure I quite know how to break this to you – but I fear that the much-ballyhooed G20 summit to be held in London next Thursday may turn out to be, well, not very much to write home about.

For one thing, a quick glance at the official timetable reveals that the entire shebang will last precisely seven hours, including time for breakfast and lunch. (Breakfast: 0830-0945; morning session: 0950-1325; lunch: 1325-1430; afternoon session: 1430-1530)

The formal talking bit of the proceedings will last just four hours and 35 minutes, which according to my calculations, means that each delegation will have less than 14 minutes of speaking time (and yes, that includes time for translation).

Who’ll be there? I knew you’d ask, so here’s the list of official G20 members: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States – and the European Union.

But at the last summit, held in Washington last November, Spain and the Netherlands were also invited. And this time, the invitation list has expanded yet again to include the New Partnership for African Development, the Association of South East Asian Nations, and the African Union. Not to mention the UN, the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organisation and OECD.

The official G20 members represent 90 per cent of global economic activity, 80 per cent of world trade, and two-thirds of the world population. Which, I accept, is impressive.

So why am I so sceptical about what’ll be achieved? For one thing, I am sceptical about summits in general: I’ve reported on far too many of them in my time, and frankly, I’m not sure I can remember a single thing of significance that emerged from any of them. Commonwealth summits, NATO summits, EU summits – been there, done that. And not much to show from any of them.

For another thing, in my experience, the real work is done long before the summit itself. Diplomats and civil servants work flat out for weeks in advance, drafting, consulting, re-drafting, re-consulting – so that all that’s left for the top bods to do is tweak a word here and a word there before the final communiqué is released to a breathlessly waiting world.

All right, maybe I exaggerate. But not by much. Because in the midst of a deep economic crisis, each leader is thinking – as they must – about their own political constituency first and foremost. It is in the nature of these events that what they eventually agree on will largely be anodyne, banal and blindingly self-evident. You know the sort of thing:

“We reaffirm our commitment to work together to encourage a rapid end to the current crisis, to make all necessary reforms in a spirit of international cooperation, and to redouble our efforts to achieve agreement in the Doha round of the world trade talks.

“We restate our determination not to adopt protectionist measures which would hit the poorest hardest; and we reaffirm our faith in the power of motherhood and apple pie.”

So why do they bother? Well, what do you do when you and your colleagues face a crisis? You have a meeting. Does it help? Sometimes, it may. But I suspect that if you were asked to sort out the global economic melt-down, you might need more than 14 minutes.

Friday 20 March 2009

20 March 2009

When you opened the newspaper this morning, did you look for the coverage of the Josef Fritzl case? Or did you rapidly turn the page so that you could read something less upsetting?

Do you regard the terrible story of a man who kept his daughter captive in a cellar for 24 years, raped her thousands of times, and had seven children with her, as a salutary example of the terrible depths to which a human being can sink? Or do you regard the coverage of the case as a sickening example of how the media will always seek to pander to our basest instincts?

When we discussed these issues on the programme last night with the Reverend George Pitcher and the forensic psychologist Professor David Canter, they both said that to be interested – even fascinated – by the Fritzl case is healthy. The scientist and the cleric were united in their view that to be interested in even the most appalling human behaviour is to show that we recognise that, despite our horror, we share something with all our fellow humans. (I have linked to a recording of our discussion here.)

There are, of course, important questions that arise from the case -- but they are questions mainly of interest to the people of Austria. How could a man hide an adult daughter and three of the children he bore him in the cellar of his own home for more than 20 years? (Three other children were allowed to live above ground with Fritzl’s wife; the seventh died shortly after birth. Fritzl was found guilty of “murder by neglect”.)

Why were no questions asked when a convicted sex offender (Fritzl had a previous conviction for rape) reported that his then 18-year-old daughter had apparently run off to join a cult, but was then allowed to adopt three of her children whom he said she had dumped on his doorstep? Why did no one apparently notice that he had built a virtual second home below ground and was regularly providing food and other necessities to his “hidden” family?

Perhaps one reason why we are fascinated by the case is that it helps us define who we are. We read of the depravity of Josef Fritzl and we say to ourselves: “I could never behave like that. He is a bad person; therefore, I am a good person.”

But here’s an interesting fact: throughout yesterday, as the Fritzl trial reached its climax, and the verdicts and sentence were announced, the most read story on the BBC News website remained the death after a skiing accident of the actress Natasha Richardson. Only on Monday, the day the trial opened, did the name of Josef Fritzl figure at the top of the “most read” list.

Make of that what you will. But to those of you who wonder why the media seem so often to concentrate on the deviant and the extreme, I would suggest that perhaps one reason is that only by revealing the extremes of the abnormal can we begin to define what is normal. (Also, of course, as has been known ever since the invention of journalism, horror sells papers. Never under-estimate the commercial imperative.)

We know who we are by defining who we are not. And I suspect that many of us take comfort today in the knowledge that we are not – and could never be – Josef Fritzl.

Friday 13 March 2009

13 March 2009

The headline in the local paper in the southern German town of Winnenden yesterday morning asked the question for all of us.

Just one word: “Warum?” Why?

Why did a 17-year-old boy go on the rampage, killing as many people as he could, including students and staff at his old school? Why could no one stop him? Why did no one know what he was planning? Why did 15 people have to die? So many questions, but all variations on the same theme. Why?

There are already plenty of theories. He is reported to have written on a social networking website: “What do I like? Nothing. What do I hate? Nothing.”

He is reported to have been obsessed with guns -- his own air guns, which fire pellets, and his father’s extensive collection of real weapons, one of which he stole to go on his killing spree.

A classmate is reported to have said that hadn’t passed his school-leaving exams, that he was no good at school and had become increasingly frustrated.

Last night, there were reports that he had been suffering from depression and had been receiving psychiatric treatment. One of his victims was apparently an employee at the clinic where he was being treated.

(Earlier reports claimed that he had written on a website: “I've had enough, I'm fed up with this horrid life ... People are laughing at me ... I am scared, I have weapons here, and I will go to my former school tomorrow and then I will really do a grilling." But now there are doubts over the authenticity of the message.)

Does any of this answer the question? I fear it doesn’t. I also fear that we might never know, that although our natural instinct is always to search for answers, perhaps we need to be able to accept that sometimes there either is no answer, or there is no answer available.

For us journalists, this is a hard lesson to learn. We were taught when we were babes in arms that our duty is always to find the answers to five basic questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? If we fail to find the answers, we feel we have failed as journalists.

So our professional instinct is always to search for the answers. And in this era of instant news, 24-hour news channels, the internet and the rest of it, the onus on us is to find them within minutes of an event occurring.

Just as politicians hate saying “Sorry”, or “I got it wrong”, so journalists hate saying “I don’t know.” And a pundit who says “I don’t know” doesn’t get invited back.

Sometimes answers will emerge at a trial, or an inquest. Sometimes police, or an official inquiry, will piece together enough of the story to satisfy our need to know. But often it will be weeks, or even months, after the event before we can be sure of the facts.

Patience has never been much in evidence in newsrooms, and I suspect it’s less in evidence now than ever before. But in my book, patience is still a virtue – and yes, that includes for news consumers as much as for news providers.

Of course, none of this means that we won’t go on trying to find answers. That’s what we’re paid for. But sometimes we just won’t find them instantly.

Friday 6 March 2009

6 March 2009

Regular readers with long memories will recall that I have been worrying about Pakistan since well before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

I’ve been worrying about Pakistan even more this week after the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore.

Here’s why: first, the attack was brazen, audacious, and well-planned. Like the attackers in Mumbai last November, the gunmen in Lahore were well-equipped and apparently well-trained. Unlike the attackers in Mumbai, they all escaped.

Second, if the emails that flooded into the BBC from Pakistan were typical, many people reacted by blaming the government as much as the attackers themselves. That, of course, was the aim of the exercise – to weaken the authority of the government (to be honest, it didn’t have much authority anyway).

Third, it raised tensions yet further on the sub-continent. And anything that draws attention away from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border is a plus for the jihadis – it relieves the pressure on their sanctuaries and allows them more freedom to concentrate on destabilising Afghanistan.

The top US diplomat in Afghanistan, Christopher Dell, was quoted yesterday as saying that he now regards Pakistan as a greater security threat to America than Afghanistan. I can see why he might say that.

Let me count the ways, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in a somewhat different context. Domestic security is now close to break-down – the attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team may well have been facilitated by co-conspirators in the police, and huge chunks of the border area with Afghanistan are beyond central government control.

It’s true that this has long been the case, but now with local tribal leaders openly making common cause with Pakistani Taliban groups, it’s a major threat both to internal security and to Afghanistan.

The economy is in melt-down: after a boom lasting nearly a decade, now the good times
are over, and the government has had to go cap in hand to the IMF to ask for a bail-out.

(I was struck, by the way, when I spoke to the Pakistani high commissioner in London on the day of the Sri Lanka attack, that he went out of his way to emphasise the urgent need for international help in providing basic education and health services. Winning hearts and minds, he said, was as important as beating the jihadi insurgents militarily.)

The government is in a mess. Yes, it’s a civilian government, and it was elected. But President Asif Ali Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower, has gained next to no respect from voters since taking office. Mr Zardari himself comes with a substantial amount of political baggage dating back to the days when he was known as “Mr Fifteen Per Cent” because of allegations that he took massive commission payments on government contracts, and his Pakistan People’s Party seems much more interested in scoring points against their political rivals in the Muslim League than in doing anything to improve the lives of voters.

And the military? Well, the men in uniform have a habit of stepping in whenever civilian governments look incapable of governing – Pakistan has been ruled by soldiers for nearly half of its life (here’s the roll-call: General Ayub Khan, General Yahya Khan, General Zia-Ul-Haq, General Pervez Musharraf).

And finally … well, finally, Pakistan is a nuclear nation. The world has never seen a failed nuclear state before – and there are real fears about what might happen if the country collapses into chaos.

Pakistan needs a lot of help from its friends these days – but don’t be too surprised if you wake up in a few months’ time to hear that, yet again, the army is back in charge in Islamabad.