Friday 21 December 2012

"Guns don't kill people." Really?

I'd like you to imagine that you're a teacher in a classroom full of young children. Suddenly, a masked man bursts in, with an automatic weapon in each hand.

In your desk drawer, there is a revolver. You know it's there, because you put it there. You also know that it's loaded and ready to fire.

I don't have to ask the question, do I? Would you, or wouldn't you?

I'll make my own position as clear as I can, which I am able to do as I am no longer bound by BBC rules of impartiality. I am not, repeat not, in favour of arming teachers, or indeed anyone else, in schools.

But I recognise why others may disagree. In America, in the numbed aftermath of the Newtown killings of 20 children and six adults, there have already been suggestions -- apparently in all seriousness -- that the best way to protect children in schools is to arm either their teachers, or other members of staff.

Er, no actually. Because here's another scenario: you notice a man at the school perimeter fence. You think he looks odd; he's acting strangely and scares you. He stares at you and very slowly puts his hand inside his jacket as if to pull something from an inside pocket. A child is running between you and him, and you're convinced he's about to pull a gun.

But you have a gun in your pocket, too. Would you, or wouldn't you?

Guns don't kill people, say the anti-gun control activists, people kill people. Well, yes. The same could be said of tanks and Predator drones, yet somehow no one argues that the Second Amendment of the US constitution ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed") should guarantee the right of any US citizen to own, and use, the really big bazookas.

One local Connecticut resident was quoted a few days ago as saying: "Personally, I feel safer where there's guns. I don't want to go to any gun-free zones any more." I happen to take the opposite view, and feel a great deal safer where there are no guns at all.

I remember many years ago getting into a huge row with a man from Texas who refused to believe that I had never handled a firearm. It was the absolute truth: I had never, ever held a gun. But he regarded that as so intrinsically incredible that he called me a barefaced liar and stormed off.

The US has the 10th highest firearms-related death rate (homicides and suicides) in the world: 10.2 per 100,000 population. (Above it come countries like El Salvador at No. 1, followed by Jamaica, Honduras, and Guatemala.)

The highest placed European country is Switzerland at number 21 with 3.5 firearms-related deaths per 100,000; the UK comes in at number 65, with 0.25 deaths per 100,000.

According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, figures from 2007 suggest that with less than five per cent of the world's population, the US is home to roughly 35–50 per cent of the world's civilian-owned guns. I find it difficult to believe that the number of guns has nothing to do with the country's high gun-related death rate.

Middle America has a deep distrust of government, based in large part on the country's early history as a destination for dissenters and rebels. Many Americans believe that the right of the individual to bear arms will always trump the right of their neighbours to feel safe.

Recent US opinion polls suggest that popular sentiment post-Newtown may be marginally more sympathetic to the arguments of the pro-gun control lobby, although the numbers are still only a little over 50 per cent. But perhaps there is now going to be a real debate.

You will have noticed that I have chosen, in my first post-BBC blogpost, not to write about the BBC. I hope you'll agree that I've chosen to focus on the right thing.

Friday 14 December 2012

14 December 2012

Last night, I presented my last edition of The World Tonight. (My last Newshour will be next Tuesday.) That means this is the last of these newsletters in their current form, although if you would like to continue to hear from me, there are details at the end of this newsletter.

I wrote the first one on 8 July 2005, more than seven years ago, a day after the London bomb attacks that killed more than 50 people, and two days after we'd learnt that London had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games. There was plenty to write about that day, and there's been plenty to write about pretty much every week since then.

History, someone once said, is just one damn thing after another. News is the same. Another day, another batch of headlines: a never-ending cacophony of crises, conflicts, and disasters.

What we try to do on The World Tonight -- what I've tried to do in the 40-plus years I've been a journalist -- is make sense of it, or at least some of it.

As a rookie reporter, you're taught to ask the five basic "W" questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? To me, it's the fifth -- Why? -- which is always the most interesting, even if, too often, the only honest answer is "Don't know."

The great joy of the job I've been doing for the past 23 years is that -- as I said on the programme last night -- I've learnt something new every day. Does it mean I understand more? Probably not, or at least not much more … but it's still been well worth trying.

When I started back in 1989, the Cold War was coming to an end. The Berlin wall came down, Germany was reunified, and soon the Soviet Union collapsed. Night after night, we asked what it meant -- was George Bush (the first one) right to talk of the dawning of a New World Order?

Then Yugoslavia imploded, exploded into violence. Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo -- nasty, brutal wars in which thousands died, in a conflict on a continent which thought it had said goodbye to war in 1945. (Among the casualties, our much-missed colleague John Schofield, killed at the age of 29 in Croatia while covering the war for The World Tonight.)

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and an international military force kicked him out again, but left him in power in Baghdad. Somalia disintegrated into anarchy, and Rwanda drowned in the blood of the 800,000 people killed in the genocide of 1994.

Nelson Mandela was freed from jail, and apartheid made way for democracy in South Africa. In 1998 came the Good Friday agreement and the end (almost) of the violence in Northern Ireland and the IRA's bombing campaign.

As the nineties turned into the noughties, we talked endlessly of liberal interventionism, the Blair doctrine, the responsibility to protect -- fine-sounding phrases to describe a desperate, perhaps forlorn, hope that somehow the combined might of international powers could save civilians from the horrors of war and oppression.

Then came 9/11, followed by the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. A decade of bomb attacks, blamed on jihadis inspired by al Qaeda: among them Bali in 2002 (more than 200 dead); Madrid 2004 (nearly 200 dead); the London bombings in 2005; Mumbai 2008 (160 dead).

China and India became major economic powers; climate change became a major source of international concern; the internet, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter revolutionised the way we communicate with each other, do business with each other, and defame each other.

You get the picture: over the past two decades, the world has changed in countless fundamental ways. And of course, it is still changing. Governments are still struggling to control a globalised economy; the international financial system struggles to recover from the near melt-down caused by reckless lending and casino banking. Britain still hasn't decided what it wants its relationship to be with the rest of the EU; nor has the US decided what kind of relationship it wants with China.

In many ways -- although it's easy to forget this amid the babble of the headlines -- the world is a far, far better place than it was 23 years ago.

Fewer women die in childbirth; fewer children die before the age of five. In 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than a dollar a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 per cent. Economic growth has been faster in the poorest regions like sub-Saharan Africa than across the world as a whole.

We're also winning the global battle against infectious diseases. Between 1999 and 2005, thanks to the spread of vaccinations, the number of children who died annually from measles dropped by 60 per cent. The proportion of the world's infants vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus climbed from less than half to more than 80 per cent between 1985 and 2008.

I shall continue to watch, and read, and think -- and write on this blog as well as elsewhere.
So I won't say goodbye, but I will say thank you. Thank you for listening to the programme, and thank you for reading this blog. Let's stay in touch.

Friday 7 December 2012

7 December 2012

Something ugly has been happening in Egypt this week -- and it threatens to tip the Arab world's most important nation into renewed turmoil.

The scenes have been reminiscent of the street protests at the height of the anti-Mubarak uprising nearly two years ago. Once again, the chants have been ringing out across Egypt's towns and cities: "The people want the regime to fall."

But there is a difference. No one believed that Hosni Mubarak was the legitimately elected head of state, chosen by the people in free and fair elections. Mohammed Morsi, on the other hand, can claim to be exactly such a leader, even if the elections that he won last May were far from uncontentious.

Morsi won 51.7 per cent of the vote in the second round run-off, against 48.3 per cent for his main rival, Ahmed Shafik. It is perhaps too easy to forget now just how close that result was -- and how deeply disappointed the many non-Islamist Egyptian voters were.

Revolutions rarely happen neatly, or in a straight line. The revolutions in eastern and central Europe in 1989, which saw successive Communist regimes toppled one after the other, were a rare exception, and they probably gave us a misleading impression of how simple it could be to sweep away decades of authoritarian rule.

In Egypt, President Morsi's opponents believe that he, together with the Muslim Brotherhood which they deeply distrust, has made an audacious power grab, by decreeing that -- even if only temporarily -- presidential decisions will no longer be susceptible to legal challenge.

Moreover, the Brotherhood have rushed through a new draft constitution, which is meant to be approved in a referendum in just eight days' time. This isn't the careful, methodical building of a new political system which many of the revolutionaries had in mind during those heady days of early 2011 -- instead, it looks to them like a bare-faced attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to grab hold of the power they won in the elections, and make sure they'll be able to hang on to it for ever.

The counter-argument is that the courts are still stuffed with Mubarak-era judges, determined to prevent the country's new political leaders from effecting the changes that they believe the revolution legitimised.

Egypt is split in a multitude of ways -- by class, by religion, by education and by wealth. No one political group, and certainly not the Muslim Brotherhood which has emerged as the country's overwhelmingly dominant post-Mubarak force, can claim to represent the interests of more than one section of Egypt's voters.

The accusation being levelled at President Morsi is that he still thinks, and acts, like a Muslim Brotherhood leader, not like a national leader. He may say the right things -- but his opponents say his actions tell a different story.

And remember, as I have pointed out before, why the fate of Egypt matters so much. Its population, at 81 million, is greater than the combined total populations of all the other Arab Spring nations -- Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen.

It has a history stretching back more than five millennia to the pharoahs. Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo has long been regarded as the seat of Sunni Muslim orthodoxy. And every head of the Arab League since its inception in 1945, with one brief exception, has been an Egyptian.

Just last month, Egypt was again instrumental in mediating a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And with Syria in flames, no one in the Middle East wants to see Egypt slip into chaos, or worse.

So the challenge facing President Morsi is a daunting one. Judging by his TV address last night, he is in no mood to offer concessions to the protesters gathered in the streets. They, similarly, are in no mood to let him get away with what they insist is behaviour quite out of keeping with the aims of the anti-Mubarak uprising.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

Next week will be my last at The World Tonight after 23 years; my final programme will be on Thursday. That means that next week's newsletter will be my last in its current format, although it will continue in a somewhat different guise, and I will continue to write independently in the New Year. Full details will be in next week's newsletter.

Friday 23 November 2012

23 November 2012

It’s just possible that this weekend, one of Europe’s most important nations will start to break apart.

The people of Catalonia, the richest region of Spain, will be voting on Sunday in an election which may – and I repeat, may – set them on a path to independence.

Just like Scotland, you may think. Well, no, not really. First because the central government in Madrid is most unlikely to give its approval for the holding of a referendum on Catalan independence, and second because, if the opinion polls are right, there is in Catalonia, unlike in Scotland, a pro-independence majority.

And that’s something new. Last September, on Catalonia’s national day, huge crowds took to the streets of Barcelona – some estimates put the number as high as two million – to call for independence in an unprecedented demonstration of fury at what is seen here as Madrid’s contemptuous, even insulting, attitude towards the people of this immensely proud nation.

In part, this nationalist fervour is a by-product of the European economic crisis. Catalans contribute substantially more to Madrid’s coffers than they get back, and, they claim, are being asked to make far bigger financial sacrifices than the central government to meet the demands of Spain’s creditors.

Last night, I stood in a magnificent square in the heart of old Barcelona, gazing up at an eternal flame flickering at the top of a soaring metal sculpture. It’s a memorial to the Catalan fighters who died fighting to defend the city in 1714, against the besieging Spanish and French armies. Catalan nationalists will tell you that today, nearly 300 years later, they’re still fighting for the same cause.

Like their Scottish nationalist equivalents, Catalan independence campaigners insist that their new nation would remain a member of the EU and would be a good neighbour to the country from which it had broken away.

One businessman here told me the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona is like a marriage that has irretrievably failed. But when I asked him if divorce is really the only answer, he replied that unfortunately one of the parties to the marriage is refusing to consider one. Madrid, he said, is simply unable to accept the reality of a partnership that has broken down.

The reason all this matters far beyond Spain’s borders is that the Catalans are not the only Europeans itching to form their own independent state. Quite apart from those Scots who favour independence, what about the Corsicans of France, or the Padanians of northern Italy? They will all be watching closely on Sunday.

It’s not as if the EU isn’t facing enough troubles as it is. There’s the new budget to be agreed, and of course there’s still a very real prospect of more financial turbulence over Greece’s debts and, yes, Spain’s too.

The last thing the Spanish government wants is to be thrown into a major constitutional crisis following this weekend’s election. Catalan leaders insist they’re not spoiling for a fight, but they are insisting on being heard.

If the election results in a clear majority in the regional parliament for parties that favour either full independence or substantially enhanced autonomy – and that’s what the opinion polls are suggesting – the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will be faced with a stark choice.

Either he starts negotiating with the Catalans to see how many of their demands he can meet, or he faces them down and dares them to do their worst.

Right across Europe, many of his fellow EU leaders will be watching anxiously to see which way he jumps.

I’ll be on air tonight, Friday, from Barcelona, with an extended report looking ahead to the election and analysing the likely repercussions for the rest of the EU. I hope you’ll be able to tune in, or catch up later via iPlayer.

Friday 16 November 2012

16 November 2012

Perhaps you remember the time, long, long ago, when we used to talk of something called the Middle East peace process.

It was a time when Israeli and Palestinian officials would sit down and negotiate, not very successfully, admittedly, but in the hope that they might be able to find a way to resolve their many deep-seated differences about how to share the bit of the Levant that they both call their homeland.

Last night, in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, many thousands of people, Palestinians and Israelis, lay awake in their beds, listening for -- and dreading -- the sound of an incoming missile or rocket. There is no peace process any more, nor has there been for several years; in its place there is either a vacuum, or war.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo peace accords, a moment when, just briefly, many Israelis and Palestinians believed there might be a chance of coming up with a way to live in peace, side by side.

The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (together with Israelis Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin) and took up residence in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He died eight years ago, and now they're digging up his body to see if he was poisoned by the Israelis.

Why did the Palestinian group Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip for the past five years, unleash a barrage of more than 100 rockets against Israel last weekend? Why did Israel choose to respond with its most violent military onslaught since its war in Gaza four years ago?

According to the analyst Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force for Palestine, whom I interviewed on the programme last night, Hamas hardliners needed to prove that they still have the stomach for a fight, even after five years of trying to be a quasi government, looking after sewers, and power supplies, and health and education. And perhaps they also wanted to force their Muslim Brotherhood patrons in Cairo to come off the fence and back them as the legitimate representatives of their people.

As for the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who was also on last night's programme, with an election coming in January, Mr Netanyahu may well have caculated that a short, sharp military adventure would do him no harm at all at the polls. It will certainly divert voters' attention from Israel's deep religious-secular divide, which has been a dominant political theme for the past year.

If this all sounds cynical, well, I'm sorry, but there's more to come. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz says the Hamas military commander whom the Israelis killed on Wednesday, Ahmed al-Jaabari, had been for several years Israel's go-to man in Gaza. Apparently, he was the man who kept the rockets on their launchers, who kept the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit alive, and who eventually, just over a year ago, negotiated Shalit's return to Israel in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

According to Ha'aretz, Israel eventually decided that Jaabari was no longer fulfilling his side of the bargain: too many rockets were once again being fired from Gaza into Israel. The message, said Ha'aretz, was simple and clear: "You failed -- you're dead."

So now what? Well, we know the script, unfortunately, because we've watched this drama many times before. Over the next few days -- maybe a week, maybe two -- more people on both sides will die. More people will live in fear, and more will have reason to hate their adversaries.

Eventually, a ceasefire will be agreed. Israel will say it has largely destroyed the Hamas arsenal of rockets and has seriously weakened its military capacity. Hamas will say it has withstood yet another onslaught by its far more powerful enemy, and will salute the resolve and steadfastness of the Palestinian people.

I remember asking a senior Israeli peace negotiator many years ago if he thought the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians would ever end. "Oh yes," he said. "It will end when we grow tired of killing each other's children."

That time, it seems, has not yet come.

Friday 9 November 2012

9 November 2012

So was it "los Latinos que lo ganó por Obama"? (trans: the Latinos who won it for Obama)

Or was it the African-Americans? Or the young voters? Or the women? As always in elections, the numbers tell the story. Barack Obama won 71 per cent of the Latino vote, 93 per cent of the black vote, 60 per cent of the youth vote, and 55 per cent of the women's vote (67 per cent of unmarried women).

Mitt Romney got most of the white votes, and did best among older, white males. The problem for the Republicans, though, is crystal clear: there aren't enough white voters any more to bring them victory -- they now make up just 73 per cent of the total electorate, down from 77 per cent eight years ago, and the numbers are falling further year by year.

Ten per cent of American voters are Hispanic; 13 per cent are black; 20 per cent are under the age of 30. No party can win without their support. As one Republican strategist put it after the results were in: "Demography is destiny."

But here's another statistic that I found particularly telling: 81 per cent of voters who said they were backing the candidate who "cares about people like me" went for Obama. In other words, to win an election, you have to be able to persuade voters that you understand them, their problems and their worries.

They don't have to like you -- Margaret Thatcher, for example, never did well in the "likeability" polls, but she did speak a language that resonated with large numbers of British voters. That's why she won three consecutive elections. And that, the numbers suggest, was a major factor in Barack Obama's re-election victory on Tuesday night.

By the way, while we're on the subject of numbers, I would urge you to take with a large pinch of salt all the stuff that's been written this week about America being more deeply split down the middle than ever before. The numbers tell a different story.

Barack Obama won 50.4 per cent of the popular vote on Tuesday. Compare that to the 50.7 per cent George Bush won in 2004, the same proportion that Ronald Reagan won in 1980, or the pencil-thin 50.08 per cent majority that Jimmy Carter won in 1976.

The truth is that the US has been split down the middle for decades. Which means that you need only a small number of voters to shift allegiance -- or for the country's demographic make-up to change (see above) -- for the White House to change hands.

So is it all over for the Republican party? I doubt it -- after all, just eight years ago, George W Bush won 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote, and with a number of rising Hispanic stars in their ranks, there would appear to be no real reason why Republicans can't start working to rebuild some of that support between now and the next Presidential election in 2016.

Those of you with long memories may remember how during the 1980s and early 90s, after eight years of Reagan, followed by four years of Bush Senior, it became fashionable to say the Democrats would never win an election again. Then along came a man called Bill Clinton, younger, cooler, and saxophone-playing, who turned the Democrats into the New Democrats, and charmed his way to the White House.

Something remarkably similar happened in the UK -- Labour was frequently written off during the Thatcher years, but then along came a man called Tony Blair, younger, cooler, and guitar-playing, who turned Labour into New Labour, and charmed his way to Downing Street.

(A Clinton strategist at the time was reported to have told Labour what the secret of the Clinton makeover had been: "Keynesianism, plus the electric chair.")

History teaches us that parties can re-invent themselves to match changing social realities. So here's a mini-prediction for you: keep an eye on Spanish-speaking Republicans, men like Marco Rubio of Florida, who may very well play an increasingly visible role over the next couple of years.

And here's one other mini-prediction: I doubt the Republicans will ever again choose a multi-millionaire venture capitalist as their Presidential candidate.

I still remember the words of a retired factory worker in deepest rural Ohio, whom I met during my recent US road trip: "As long as rich men run this country, it'll be a rich man's country. And they won't do anything for people like me."

Friday 2 November 2012

2 November 2012

You may as well start thinking about it now, because it's beginning to look as if before too long, you're going to be asked to vote in a referendum on Britain and the EU.

Not this side of the next election, I admit, but my strong hunch is that all three major parties will have something in their manifestos come 2015 about being committed to a referendum. And that means, regardless of the election outcome, a referendum there will be.

Perhaps it's not before time. For the best part of 20 years, ever since the ructions over the Maastricht Treaty, British politics have been conducted in the full knowledge that an unspoken truth was lurking in the Westminster undergrowth: this country has still not made up its mind about what it wants its relationship to be with its neighbours across the Channel.

The trouble is that as soon as you start asking questions about it, more questions arise. Do you want the UK to remain in the EU? Well, you may respond, that rather depends on whether you mean the EU as it is now, or the EU as it may become over the next decade.

Would you like the UK to leave the EU but retain a close trading relationship with it? Well, that depends whether you have a Norway model in mind, or a Switzerland model. (Believe me, they're different …)

Last Wednesday's vote in the House of Commons, when the government was defeated on an amendment seeking a commitment to cut the total EU budget, was a wake-up call. Europe is back on the Westminster agenda, despite all David Cameron's efforts since he became Tory leader seven years ago to shove it in the back of the cupboard and close the door tight.

Every time voters are asked what issues matter most to them, Europe comes way down the list. The economy, immigration and the NHS are the issues they highlight -- Europe, according to one recent poll, was identified by only 15 per cent of voters as an important issue facing the country.

The UK's net contribution to the EU this year (ie what it pays in, minus what it gets back, minus the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher) comes to just a shade under 7 billion pounds. That compares to around £104 billion that's spent on the NHS.  

EU enthusiasts argue that the benefits the UK gets from membership are substantial compared to the relatively modest cost: a say in how the future shape of Europe will be decided; a whole raft of trade agreements with other nations, all of which would have to be separately negotiated if Britain were to leave; and a voice on the global diplomatic stage which would be much smaller were the UK to be operating alone.

Against which Euro-sceptics argue that the larger the EU becomes, the smaller the British voice becomes; that the pooling of sovereignty has taken key powers away from elected representatives at Westminster; and that EU rules and regulations are stifling British enterprise.

But perhaps the argument is about more than facts and figures: maybe it's also about how British voters think of themselves and their national identity, relative to our fellow-Europeans. Proud, separate, different -- and yes, let's be honest about it, better.

But back to that referendum. Party leaders know only too well that recent experience suggests that when governments ask voters a direct question about the EU, they don't get the answer they were hoping for. French and Dutch voters said No to a new constitution in 2005; and then a revised treaty, the Lisbon treaty, was thrown out by Irish voters in 2008.  (They eventually said Yes a year later after a number of concessions had been negotiated.)

So suppose there is a UK referendum some time after 2015 -- and suppose the question is something nice and simple, along the lines of: "Do you want the UK to remain in, or to withdraw from, the European Union?" When the question was asked in a referendum in 1975, two-thirds of voters said they wanted to stay in. Forty years on, I fancy the answer would be very different.

How would you vote?

Friday 19 October 2012

19 October 2012

Is Nigeria about to invade Mali? Sorry, let me rephrase that: is a UN-backed regional intervention force about to restore order in Mali?

In fact, the two questions amount to the same thing, following a resolution passed by the UN security council last week that could well pave the way for military intervention in a country that's rapidly becoming one of the world's most troubling security hot-spots.

Here's the background: last March, there was a military coup in Mali. In the words of Bruce Whitehouse, writing in the London Review of Books: "Rank-and-file soldiers involved in a campaign against the resurgent Tuareg rebels didn’t trust their commanders and accused officials in [the capital] Bamako of withholding equipment and support. Mutineers captured the state television station and stormed the presidential palace. [President Amadou Toumani] Touré vanished into the night with a few bodyguards …"

And here's the background to those Tuareg rebels: they've been fighting for independence for the north of the country for many years. Some of them fought for Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; and after his overthrow last year, they returned home with plenty of arms. After the coup, they did try to secede, but were soon overpowered by Islamist/jihadist groups, reportedly linked to al-Qaeda, with whom they had been in a loose alliance.

So now, half the country or more, including the famed city of Timbuktu, is in the hands of the Islamists. And Western governments are desperately worried that al-Qaeda is well on the way to establishing a new toe-hold in a newly-failed state.

With some rare exceptions (take a bow, Lindsey Hilsum of Channel 4 News and Mike Thomson of our sister programme Today), much of this has gone unreported in the mainstream Western media. But the UN security council has begun to take notice, and the resolution passed a week ago, drafted by France, calls on Mali's neighbours to come up with  "detailed and actionable recommendations" within 45 days for military intervention.

It also calls on foreign governments and international organisations to provide "co-ordinated assistance, expertise, training and capacity-building support" to such a force. All of which means, in all likelihood, Nigerian troops, backed by French special forces and perhaps some US intelligence-gathering as well.

Does any of this sound familiar? Think Somalia, where after endless delays, African Union forces are now beginning to make real gains against the al-Shabaab militia groups, which like their Malian equivalents, are said to be allied to al-Qaeda.

So will it work in Mali, if it ever happens? (It needs another security council resolution before a force can actually move in.) The Malian army itself is reportedly nothing like an effective fighting force, so there will have to be a lot of careful thinking about what should be done post-intervention. (Iraq, anyone?)

The respected conflict resolution think-tank the International Crisis Group has already sounded a warning:

"The use of force may well be necessary … to neutralise some of the armed groups involved in transnational crime activities combining terrorism, jihadism and drug trafficking.  However, any military intervention should be preceded by political and diplomatic efforts aimed at isolating questions regarding intercommunal tensions within Malian society from those concerning collective security of the Sahel-Sahara region."

There are already some grim tales emerging from the areas under the control of the Islamists: the UN's assistant secretary-general for human rights Ivan Simonovic told reporters after a recent visit to Mali that he had heard testimony that forced marriage, forced prostitution, and rape were widespread, and that women were being sold as "wives" for less than $1,000.

Islamist militia groups have stoned to death an unmarried couple, he said, and amputated the hand of an alleged thief, as well as destroying ancient shrines in Timbuktu, claiming they violated Sharia law and promoted idolatry among Muslims. (Three more shrines, all listed as World Heritage Sites, were reported to have been destroyed yesterday.)

After all the mistakes that have been made during previous attempts at international military intervention, I wouldn't expect anything to happen quickly in Mali. But it may well be that sooner or later, a force will move in.

The New York-based artist Janet Goldner, who knows Mali well, wrote on her blog last week: "I have been a peace activist all my life but I see no alternative to a war in this case. The humanitarian crisis will only get worse until the criminals are gone."

Friday 28 September 2012

28 September 2012

I can't make up my mind: am I relieved -- or disappointed -- that I won't be at any of the political party conferences this year?

With just a few exceptions, I've been to at least one of them pretty much every year for the past two decades -- so it does feel a bit odd watching them on the box like everyone else. (Everyone is glued to them, aren't they?)

On the one hand, I won't much miss the windswept, rain-lashed joys of Brighton, Bournemouth and Blackpool (latterly joined by Manchester and Birmingham, which have a better class of hotel but no storm-flecked seas). Nor will I miss the cold fried eggs at breakfast, nor the excessive amounts of instant coffee drunk from polystyrene cups.

But I will miss -- am missing -- the sense of drama that accompanies the party leaders' speeches every year, and the urgent gossip in the bars as activists and aficionados exchange confidences and hatch plots.

Does any of it matter? Perhaps less than it did, simply because party managers have got so much better at managing, and their media advisers have taught them that conferences work best these days as product launches rather than as a genuine forum for debate.

I realised just how much had changed a couple of years ago, when I went to a lunch-time fringe meeting to hear what I thought might be an interesting discussion about future British defence policy. But instead of finding myself among party activists, I soon discovered that every other person in the room was either from a campaign group or was a lobbyist from a defence company. Not a paid-up party member to be seen.

Mind you, even orchestrated party rallies have their uses. Watch who's called to speak -- and who isn't -- and listen carefully for the core messages when the leader does The Speech. There's still a lot to be learned, even if it's probably true that most of it can be gleaned just as satisfactorily by watching it on TV.

Will you permit me a brief stroll down memory lane? To those drama-packed days of the early 1990s, when the then Labour leader John Smith pushed through OMOV (one member, one vote) to clip the wings of the trades union barons. And when John Prescott delivered an utterly incoherent, barn-storming speech in which, as was remarked at the time, you couldn't understand a word he said, but you knew exactly what he meant.

And to Iain Duncan Smith in Bournemouth in 2002, when he tried to turn his weakness into strength with the much derided line: "Do not under-estimate the determination of a quiet man." A year later, in Blackpool, he tried again: "The quiet man is here to stay, and he's turning up the volume." Weeks later, he was gone.

The early Blair years were full of conference drama as the new leader remodelled his party -- reinvented it, some said -- with a series of speeches which left some activists bewildered and others bewitched. (I thought I detected a bit of Blair in Nick Clegg at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton this week -- the same ability to tell the party faithful what they don't want to hear, yet somehow get them to cheer nonetheless.)

Party policy doesn't get made at conferences any more, and party splits are kept carefully hidden from view. Can you imagine a senior party figure storming off the platform in protest against his leader's speech, as Labour's Eric Heffer did in 1985, when Neil Kinnock went on the attack against Militant?

So yes, I accept that the conferences are not what they were. (The same is true in the US, incidentally, where party conventions used to be the place where, every four years, party activists chose whom they wanted as their presidential candidate. These days, the choice is made in primary elections, so much of the drama has gone.) 

And while we're on the subject of the US, that's where I'll be heading next week. So as Labour meet in Manchester, and the Tories gather in Birmingham a week later, I'll be on the other side of the Atlantic. Listen out for a special programme next Thursday, and another one on Monday 15 October, with, I hope, plenty of other reports along the way.

Friday 21 September 2012

21 September 2012

When the world's second biggest economy and its third biggest economy rattle their sabres at each other, I think it's probably time for the rest of us to take notice.

China and Japan are growling at each other again, and as both countries are in the midst of what could be profound political changes, the risk of miscalculation is worryingly high.

They're arguing over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, north-east of Taiwan and west of the Japanese island of Okinawa. Both China and Japan have claims that go back a long way into history -- and both governments see the islands as a symbol of their sovereignty and of their regional power.

(It is not exactly irrelevant, of course, that the islands are close to strategically important shipping lanes, and the waters around them offer rich fishing grounds and are thought to contain potentially lucrative oil deposits -- this isn't only about politics and pride by any means.)

Japan calls them the Senkaku Islands and has controlled them since 1971, when they inherited them from the US, which had administered them since 1945. (Japan had originally annexed them in 1895 and the Americans gained control when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War.)

China calls them the Diaoyu Islands and says they've been part of China since as early as the 14th century and were ceded to Japan as part of Taiwan only after the first Sino-Japanese war. So the Beijing view is that when Taiwan was returned in the Treaty of San Francisco in 1951, the islands should have been returned as well.

(Oh yes, Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the islands -- but for now seems content to sit out the current dispute.)

This isn't the first time that Japan and China have faced each other down over these islands. Just two years ago, Japan seized a Chinese trawler that had collided with two coastguard vessels close to the islands, sparking a nasty diplomatic row.

This time, it's getting nastier. There have been huge anti-Japan demonstrations in several Chinese cities (this, remember, in a country where demonstrations generally don't happen unless the government wants them to), and many Japanese companies in China have had to shut down for fear of being attacked.

Two-way trade between China and Japan totals something like $345 billion -- that's not chicken feed, and however hot the diplomatic waters might get, each side knows that their economies need that trade to continue.

But here's the worrying thing. According to a poll carried out by Reuters, more than 40 per cent of Japanese companies see the current dispute as likely to affect their business plans. (And this is a poll that was carried out before the most recent protests.) If that means a big drop in Japanese investment in China, both countries will suffer.

And then there's the politics. The Japanese government has been keen to stay on good terms with Beijing, but it's not a popular stance, and more radical groups have been pressing for a tougher line. The current row stems from a plan by the controversial governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, to buy the islands -- that's when the government stepped in and bought them instead, to stop him getting his hands on them.

If the ruling Democratic Party of Japan loses the election that's expected within the next 12 months, it will in all probability be replaced by the more hard-line Liberal Democratic Party, currently in the throes of a party leadership campaign in which the disputed islands have been a major issue.

As for China, the Communist party is on the brink of a major leadership change, and is only too aware of the political dynamics in Japan. So they may be calculating in Beijing that now is likely to be the best chance in quite a while to get what China wants.

And of course all Chinese know their history: how Japan occupied Manchuria in 1931 and invaded the rest of China in in 1937, and the story of the Nanking (or Nanjing) massacre in which anything up to 300,000 people were slaughtered. The Chinese think the Japanese still harbour imperial tendencies; the Japanese think the Chinese are building a new empire (admittedly of the 21st century variety, which thankfully involves far fewer wars and far fewer deaths).

A complicated dispute a long way away? Well, yes. But add to the mix US interests in the Asia-Pacific region -- the defence secretary Leon Panetta has been in the area all week -- and you have a pretty toxic brew.

Get a map out and see exactly where the islands are. You'll soon see why they matter so much to both Japan and China. And when you chart the routes that all those container ships from China use, bringing TVs, computers and smartphones to their impatient customers in the West (yes, sorry, that probably does mean you), well, you'll also see why it's not just a complicated dispute on the other side of the world.

Friday 14 September 2012

14 September 2012

Did you hear that huge sigh of relief, wafting across the Channel from Brussels yesterday?

Maybe not. Maybe you were still in paroxysms of post-Paralympic perfection, or mired in Murray-mania -- or perhaps, yesterday morning, you were simply numbed by the horror of the long-awaited Hillsborough report.

So let me draw your attention to matters European, because dull though they may seem, they are still likely to dominate much of the political debate between now and the end of the year.

First, on Wednesday morning, the German constitutional court said OK to the eurozone's financial bail-out plan, without which there was little hope of restoring even a smidgin of stability to EU economies.  (True, the court imposed a few conditions, but as is the way with these things, no one worries about the conditions until later.)

Then, on Wednesday night, as results started trickling in from the Dutch general election, it became clear that voters had turned away from the parties at the extreme ends of the political spectrum and decided to stay where they seem to be most comfortable: in the pro-EU middle.

There seems to be a bit of a pattern emerging in European elections these days: first, the opinion polls suggest that voter support is growing rapidly for anti-EU parties on the fringes, but then, on election day, the actual result favours the more traditional parties of the centre.

In May, that's largely what happened in the French presidential election; then the following month in Greece, the anti-austerity Syriza bloc was narrowly beaten at the last minute by the right-of-centre New Democracy party  -- and this week in the Netherlands, the two pro-EU centrist parties both did better than expected, with the anti-EU Freedom Party of Geert Wilders losing many of its seats.

You may be familiar with the old maxim about how financial markets work: driven either by greed, or by fear. When greed dominates, traders buy and markets rise; when it gives way to fear, they sell, and markets fall.

So here's the Lustig theory of European election patterns: instead of greed and fear, voters experience anger and fear. When anger dominates, they support anti-EU parties; but when anger gives way to fear, they tend to stick with what they know.

There's no shortage of anger in Europe at the moment: anger at high unemployment, at reckless banking practices, and at ineffectual governments who seem to have spent five long years failing to get to grips with the crisis that has swept across the continent.

But there's fear too: fear of being left out in the cold, if, say, Greece crashes out of the eurozone, or if the Netherlands turns its back on an institution it helped to establish 60 years ago, when it was one of the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community.

So, sighs of relief in Brussels. But not for long, I fear. Remember Spain?

It's only a week since the European Central Bank announced how it intends to use its muscle to shore up indebted eurozone countries by buying up their bonds if interest rates rise too high. (Not from the governments directly, however, which would be against ECB rules, but only on secondary markets.)

But here come those conditions again: the bank will start buying only if a government asks for help -- and that's something which until now, the Spanish government has insisted it won't do.

Mind you, according to a detailed analysis published by Reuters earlier this week, Spain may soon have little or no choice in the matter. It quoted one analyst as saying: "I think it is a done deal that Spain will seek assistance. They didn't raise nearly enough money in the markets in August and in fact I would argue that they are not even trying to avoid assistance at this point."

We'll probably know soon enough. Spain needs to refinance 27.5 billion euros worth of debt next month -- and the credit rating agencies seem to be just waiting for that formal request for assistance.

If it comes, and if the ECB rescue plan kicks in -- and works -- there'll be more sighs of relief in Brussels. If not, well, let's not go there.

Oh, did you ask about Greece? Good question … but not this week.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Review: "It's All News To Me", by Jeremy Vine

My review of Jeremy Vine's book, which appears in the current edition of the British Journalism Review.

It’s All News To Me, by Jeremy Vine (Simon & Schuster, pp339, £18.99)

You probably don’t know this, but all members of the Amalgamated Union of Radio Broadcasters have to swear an oath that they will preserve certain closely-guarded professional secrets on pain of forever sitting in front of a dead mic.

Far be it from me to risk such a fate, but I can – I think – gently point you in the direction of where some of these secrets might be found. I shall expect you to forget them as soon as you have read them, much as you forget pretty much everything you hear on the radio anyway.

Could you possibly imagine, for example, that radio broadcasters tend to be (with just a few exceptions, naturally) ego-driven, neurotic, and pathologically insecure, in need of daily reassurance that their job is safe for at least another week?

Would you swoon in disbelief if I were to hint that, just occasionally, we (sorry, they) wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, nerves shredded, having suffered that ultimate presenter nightmare of being in a studio with the cue light on and a pile of scripts consisting only of blank sheets of paper? (Yes, gentle reader, been there, done that. Many times.)

And you would simply refuse to believe, would you not, that being a radio  broadcaster is beyond doubt the best job in the world, with a higher joy to hassle ratio than any other career on earth, with the possible exception of champagne taster for a high-end French vineyard.
To succeed as a radio broadcaster, you need only three modest gifts: an ability to keep the bosses happy, an ability to keep the listeners happy – and gigantic dollops of luck. Every day, every week, every year. Obviously, it helps if you can string a couple of sentences together and give the impression of being in control even while your programme is collapsing around you. A talented production team helps even more …

So how about this for luck? Suppose you are writing an account of your first 25 years at the BBC, and at some point you feel the need to pass judgement on the man who was in charge of one of the programmes you presented some years ago. You choose to describe him as “luminously bright” and as having had, within hours of the 9/11 attacks, the “single most valuable insight” of the day.

Then, long after your book has gone off to the printers – indeed, just as it is hitting the bookshops – guess what, that same ex-editor is miraculously appointed director-general of the BBC. That’s what I call luck – and Jeremy Vine, as he himself admits in this hugely enjoyable memoir, has had luck in bucket-loads.

He has also had – and he admits this too, although with a self-deprecation that perhaps doesn’t quite convince – a Shard-size ambition to make it to the top. He was the youngest broadcaster ever to present Newsnight on BBC-2 (“You don’t want to be the youngest, Jeremy,” wise old John Sergeant told him. “You want to be the oldest.”) – but quickly discovered that being perceived, whether fairly or not, as the self-appointed dauphin to The Great Paxo (mini-me?), is not a good career move.

Vine concludes that if your name is Jeremy, you should never agree to present a programme on which another presenter is also called Jeremy. But what about if your initials are JV? Isn’t it tempting fate to take over from a venerable national institution who is known universally as JY? (That’s Jimmy Young, for the uninitiated, whose immensely popular show on BBC Radio 2, Vine inherited in 2003.)

Vine has an easy manner on air that he reproduces perfectly on the printed page. His book is full of delightful anecdotes and there are plenty of jokes at his own expense. As, for example, when he’s offered the Jimmy Young job, and Paxman jokingly (?) emails to ask if he can be Vine’s agent. “Only if you give up all your other jobs,” Vine replies rashly.

The Paxo smash back across the net is as unplayable as it is inevitable. “I can’t think handling your career would take up too much of my time.” Ouch and double ouch, but all credit to Vine for telling the tale. And also for telling the cringingly embarrassing story of how he came to make an utter prat of himself wearing a Stetson hat and a cowboy pistol for a memorable car crash of a TV election broadcast in 2008.

All of which leaves me with no choice: at the next meeting of the Amalgamated Union of Radio Broadcasters, I shall be proposing Vine’s immediate expulsion. He has let all our cats out of all their bags, and has unforgivably given the entire game away. He makes it sound such fun, which of course it is – but you were never meant to know that.

Robin Lustig has presented The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4 and Newshour on BBC World Service since 1989. He is a member of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review, which he chaired from 1993 until 2002.

Friday 7 September 2012

7 September 2012

I don't suppose that when anti-Assad protesters began their uprising in Syria 18 months ago, they looked in their diaries and murmured: "Hmm, US presidential elections in November next year -- could be a problem."

But perhaps they should have done, because they desperately need Washington's attention, and they don't seem to be getting much of it. And until the November elections are out of the way, I very much doubt that will change.

It always used to be said that nothing ever happened in the Middle East unless the US was directly involved. It was never quite as true as people liked to make out (the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, were signed in 1993 with only minimal involvement of the Americans).

It's certainly not true any longer, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, who decided to take their fate into their own hands and launch the Arab Spring.

And yet. If you want effective international diplomatic action -- and even more so if you want effective international military action -- you still need Washington. With US eyes off the ball, having given up on the UN playing any useful role in Syria, it looks as if there's a huge gap waiting to be filled.

Enter stage right and stage left President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Both think they can increase their regional influence by playing an active role in Syria, but both are already running into trouble.

Take Mr Erdogan first. Once he was President Bashar al-Assad's friendly neighbour to the north, keen to do business and not too bothered about the niceties of democratic governance in Damascus.

But shortly after the uprising began, he threw in his lot with the anti-Assad protesters, called on the Syrian president to stand down, and was soon hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and, below the radar, offering assistance to Syrian rebel forces.

Now there are 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, and Mr Erdogan is calling Syria a "terrorist state", blaming President Assad for stirring up trouble among Turkey's Kurdish minority. There's certainly been a sharp upsurge in attacks by the Kurdish PKK guerrilla group, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation not only by Ankara, but also by the US and the European Union.

Just this week, there have been reports of major clashes between Turkish forces and PKK fighters, involving a reported 2,000 Turkish troops and including military action across the border in Iraq. How long, some observers are asking, before Turkish forces cross into Syria in hot pursuit of their PKK foes?

As for President Morsi of Egypt, he's playing a very different game. As a man of the Muslim Brotherhood, he's keen to make common cause with the Sunni majority in Syria, who make up the bulk of the anti-Assad forces. He's also keen to show his Arab neighbours that after 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's staunch loyalty to the US, Egypt is now charting its own, independent foreign policy.

But his first attempt to carve out a role for himself in the Syria crisis was short-lived. At the summit of the non-aligned movement in Tehran last month, he hoped to broker a new diplomatic initiative which would include Iran, as Syria's most loyal ally, and the Arab states of the Gulf which have been backing the Syria rebels.

To be a broker, though, you have to command the respect of both sides. And Mr Morsi's strongly-worded attack on President Assad infuriated not only Damascus but also Tehran. End of Morsi initiative.

So what are we left with? Washington engrossed in an election campaign for the next two months; an Egypt still trying to find its feet on the diplomatic stage; and a Turkey becoming seriously alarmed at the risk of blow-back, having dumped President Assad so early on.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of a million Syrians are estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries -- most of them to Jordan -- and the level of casualties in Syria is higher than at any point since the uprising began.

Turkish calls for a buffer zone on Syrian soil to offer some protection to Syrian non-combatants seem likely to go nowhere, for the simple reason that buffer zones need military protection, and no one looks ready to send troops to Syria.

No wonder the new international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has now taken over from Kofi Annan, calls his mission "nearly impossible".