Friday 24 July 2009

24 July 2009

I imagine you remember BSE and mad cow disease. Weren’t we told that anyone who had ever eaten beef was supposedly at risk of life-threatening brain damage? And you probably remember the bird flu scare. Maybe you even remember necrotising fasciitis, the “flesh-eating bug”, which had us all terrified a few years back.

Why are we so prone to health hysteria? And why do we apparently find it so difficult to tell the difference between a scare story and a genuine health emergency?

I have some theories. First, we live in a complex, confusing, technologically-challenging world. We are never quite sure how fresh is the food that we eat or how pure is the air that we breathe. We lie awake at night and worry: do I know enough, understand enough, to make the right decisions for myself and my family?

We scour the newspapers and sit glued in front of the TV or radio, hoping to learn something that will help us understand. Should I be eating more eggs, or fewer? Should my children drink more fruit juice, or less?

But the answers are usually as confused as the questions. We no longer automatically believe what we’re told, anyway – so even if a Government minister, or a doctor, tells us “This is how it is”, we are sceptical, or dismissive.

Which brings us, as you knew it would, to swine flu. Or flu, as I prefer to call it. I imagine that, like most people, you’ve had flu at some point in the past, and survived. (No jokes, please, about men who get flu: everyone knows that men suffer much more when they’re ill than women do … it’s just the way we’re made.)

Swine flu is this year’s flu. The only difference, so far as I can make out, is that the virus is slightly different from the ordinary, common-or-garden, seasonal flu, which means that the vaccine which is usually given to vulnerable people isn’t effective. This new flu may be a bit more likely to spread, but it seems to be no more serious as an illness (if anything, it might be a bit less serious – at least, for most people).

All right, so why all the fuss? Here’s my theory. First, officials never want to be accused of being unprepared, or of having failed to warn the public of a genuine danger. So they are naturally tempted to err on the side of pessimism.

Second, it is part of their job to prepare for the worst. They have spent ages drawing up detailed contingency plans. So when we reporters ask them: “What’s the worst case scenario?”, they have a nice, scary answer ready and waiting.

And why do we reporters always seem to look for the worst case scenario? Well, imagine tonight’s programme. I read the top headline: “There seems to be a new flu virus, but no one seems too worried.” Alternatively, I read: “There seems to be a new flu virus. Government scientists say up to a million people could be affected.” Which one would keep you listening? (Honest answers only, please.)

We don’t do hysteria on The World Tonight. We try to separate fact from speculation, and we try to examine, dispassionately, what officials are saying and how the experts react. As for me, I travel to work every day by Tube, and as I hang on to the rail, I remind myself that thousands more hands have been there before mine. Some of them, doubtlessly, have been coughed or sneezed on. So I wash my hands as soon as I get to the office.

If you want more information or guidance, the National Flu Service website is at, or you can try phoning 0800 1 513 513.

I’m taking a break for the next couple of weeks, and will try very hard not to think about swine, or flu. The next newsletter will be on 14 August.

Friday 17 July 2009

17 July 2009

Remember Burma? Remember those protests nearly two years ago by thousands of saffron-robed Buddhst monks, protesting against a dictatorial military government?

Let me jog your memory, because I think Burma may soon be back in the news again, and I’d hate to think you weren’t ready for it. (As you may recall, I see it as part of my task in these newsletters to act as a sort of early warning system. Consider this your Burmese early warning.)

First, within the next few weeks, the opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi will learn whether her lengthy period of detention is to be extended yet again. (She has already spent 14 of the past 20 years either under house arrest or in prison, since before her party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory in the country’s last elections in 1990.)

The latest charge against her is that last May she broke the rules of her current detention order by allowing into her house an uninvited American guest, who had taken it upon himself to swim across a lake to her home.

The expectation is that she will be found guilty as charged (the judicial process is not exactly as independent as might be thought desirable). And if she is convicted, there is a chance of more street protests, because the woman referred to by the Burmese simply as “the Lady” remains a potent political force.

More importantly, if she is sent to prison, she will be unable by law to play any part in the elections scheduled for early next year, the first national elections since the ones her party won back in 1990. (Her supporters think this is the real reason she has been put on trial.)

But why should you care about Burma? Well, my answer is the same as it always is in these circumstances: look at a map. On one side China; on the other India. The world’s two most rapidly growing economies, two regional super-powers. They care what happens in Burma, and so should we.

China’s leaders are particularly concerned. What matters above all to them is stability at home and stability on their borders. They don’t want any sudden upheavals in Burma, any more than they do in North Korea. That’s why I shall be watching carefully to see what Beijing says and does in the run-up to the Burmese elections next year.

Not, of course, that the elections will be anything like free or fair. But if you heard the programme last night, you’ll have heard the former United Nations humanitarian affairs official Richard Horsey, who spent five years in Burma, suggest that the new generation of political leaders who are expected to emerge after the elections may be just a little bit more open to dialogue with the outside world than the current bunch of geriatric generals.

In an article in the current edition of The World Today, published by the foreign policy think tank Chatham House, he wrote that the West “must position itself now to seize the opportunities next year may bring to push the country in the more positive direction we all want to see.”

It could be that nothing will change after the elections. But it could also be that with a US president who believes in engaging even with rogue regimes, there will be a genuine opportunity for a new approach. And despite the undoubted bravery of those Buddhist monks, who risked being shot by the security forces, it could be that some subtle signals now from the outside world will stand more of a chance of effecting a shift in Burma itself.

Friday 10 July 2009

10 July 2009

Here’s a question for you: why, exactly, are British forces fighting – and dying – in Afghanistan?

No army likes to go into battle without knowing why – and the government seems to be having some difficulty in coming up with an answer that works.

This was Harriet Harman, standing in for Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday: “It is important to make sure in the mountainous regions surrounding Afghanistan and Pakistan (that) we do not have a crucible for the development of terrorism that threatens not only the people in that country but the region and indeed the whole world.”

Sub-text: remember 9/11?

The new defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth, said pretty much the same thing in more detail the same day. The priorities are, he said, (i) “to prevent a return to Taliban control that allowed terrorists to flourish and threaten our national security; (ii) to prepare the way for elections … by confronting the insurgents, denying them the freedom to operate, isolating them, and degrading their capability; and (iii) to provide the time and space for the Afghan forces to take responsibility for the security of their people, and for the Afghan Government to build their civil society.”

The key message from the government, then, is simply this: if you want a secure Britain, you have to help create a secure Afghanistan. In the words of Bob Ainsworth: “Our troops are in Afghanistan to keep our country safe from the threat of terrorism.”

Simple. Except, of course, it isn’t.

Critics like Simon Jenkins, writing in The Guardian, say our military involvement in Afghanistan is unhappily reminiscent of how the US became embroiled in Vietnam. “Vietnam began with Kennedy's noble 1963 intervention, to keep the Communist menace at bay and thus make the world safe for democracy. That is what George Bush and Tony Blair said of terrorism and Afghanistan.”

No one is arguing that military force alone will create a safe and stable Afghanistan. (After all, the British army tried and failed more than once in the 19th century – and the Soviet army failed just as dismally in the 1980s.) The argument is whether the political progress that needs to be made can be achieved only with military assistance, or rather whether it will come, if at all, only when the foreign forces have departed.

As for the “winning hearts and minds” argument (yes, it was heard in Vietnam too), Jenkins is scathing: “The strategy of ‘hearts and minds plus’ cannot be realistic, turning Afghanistan into a vast and indefinite barracks with hundreds of thousands of Western soldiers sitting atop a colonial Babel of administrators and professionals. It will never be secure. It offers Afghanistan a promise only of relentless war, one that Afghans outside Kabul know that warlords, drug cartels and Taliban sympathisers are winning.”

But might Iraq be a useful example? Most commentators seem doubtful. For one thing, Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places, topographically, ethnically, culturally and historically. Yet critics say that much of the military thinking in Afghanistan does seem to be based on what has already been tried in Iraq. (Not really surprising; after all, the US General David Petraeus is the strategic mastermind in both countries.)

Those who doubt the wisdom of British military involvement in Afghanistan say the government is sending our soldiers to fight a war they cannot win.

Those who support the current strategy say that to pull out now would hand the country back to the Taliban – which most Afghans don’t want, and which would put the UK at risk of terrorist attack – and send a dangerous message of weakness to any other potential insurgent groups who may be tempted to follow the Taliban example.

What do you think?

Saturday 4 July 2009

3 July 2009

MEXICO CITY -- OK, I admit it, I wasn’t too surprised to find -- in a country battling against powerful and violent drugs cartels -- that there was tight security around the headquarters of the government public prosecutor’s office.

You know the sort of thing: crash barriers to stop car bombs; armed guards in flak jackets to stop armed attackers; airport-style metal detectors and X-ray machines as soon as you get inside the door.

I didn’t even raise an eye-brow when they took my photo, my electronic finger-print and a specimen signature on a digital pad.

But what did stop me in my tracks was when a stern woman in surgical gown and face-mask insisted on spraying my hands with some anti-swine flu stuff before I was allowed any further. Organised crime gangs are bad enough -- but drugs syndicates and swine flu … that’s a lot for any government to handle.

President Felipe Calderón says the future of democracy in Mexico is at stake as his government battles against official corruption and organised crime. But if his right-of-centre National Action Party (PAN) does badly, as expected, in Sunday’s mid-term elections, he’ll find it even more difficult to take effective action to confront the threats to the nation’s survival.

I’ve had a fascinating few days – from the rolling hills of Michoacán to the brash Gulf beach resort of Cancun, I’ve met warm-hearted Mexicans with two over-riding concerns: an economy in free fall and spiralling drugs-related violence.

The statistics tell part of the story: the economy expected to contract by nearly 6 per cent this year; remittances from migrant workers in the US down by nearly 20 per cent; tourism revenues down by 30 per cent. More than 6,000 murders last year; more than 1,000 kidnaps.

But the other part of the story is told by people like Vitoria, the sad-faced straw hat seller I met in Cancun. “Tourists don’t come here any more … they’re too scared.”

Or people like Mineko, third-generation Japanese-Mexican, kidnapped last October outside her stationery shop and held captive for a terrifying three weeks. Or Claudia Wallace, who lives with her husband and three children in their prison-like home, with guards at the front gate 24 hours a day, because she and her family refused to keep quiet when her brother was kidnapped and murdered four years ago. (You can hear her harrowing story on tonight’s programme.)

Why is Mexico in so much trouble? Partly because it lies unhappily squeezed between cocaine growers in Colombia to the south, and cocaine users in the US to the north. Much of Mexico’s violence is the direct result of organised crime gangs battling for control of the trade.

But also partly because Mexico has a hopelessly confused, multi-layered police system, organised at municipal, State and federal level, in which far too many police are badly paid and corrupt.

And also partly because some areas of Mexico still suffer terrifying poverty, which breeds alienated and angry young men who fall prey all too easily to the narcos.

President Calderón has called in the army to help him beat the bandits. It’s a controversial but largely popular strategy. So will it succeed? I’m afraid I have to fall back on that old journalistic cliché: only time will tell. Meanwhile, Mexico, the 13th largest economy in the world, with a population of nearly 110 million, teeters on the brink.