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".